Big Blue likely to follow California’s lead on paying star athletes

Published 7:17 pm Friday, October 18, 2019

With California set to make it legal for student-athletes to make money off of their names and likenesses, we think it won’t be long before Kentucky and, eventually, the whole nation, follows suit.

California’s legislature passed a law that will allow student-athletes to make money beginning in 2023. That sets up a massive migration of top athletic talent to the west coast four years from now — if nothing changes in the mean time. But we think it will change, and the Bluegrass State may be one of the first to react.

Big Blue Nation will pressure Kentucky legislators to ensure that the Wildcats can remain a dominant force in NCAA basketball and a rising star in football. There’s simply too much passion for Big Blue for vote-chasing legislators to let slide the opportunity to claim they voted to save the Wildcats.

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According to The Kentucky Standard, state Sen. Morgan McGarvey is already planning “pay for play” legislation for the 2020 General Session.

Whether or not student-athletes should be paid has been a contentious issue for a long time. It’s still an unsettled question in many people’s minds. Keeping money out of games that are supposed to be extracurricular to students’ academic pursuits is a noble idea. But student-athletes also work really hard, and the best ones generate millions of dollars in economic activity, even as they are prohibited from receiving even a tiny bit of that money.

We think there definitely needed to be some kind of change that acknowledged how universities, conferences and media companies were banking huge profits off of unpaid workers. But we’re not sure California’s solution is the best one.

This change only really benefits superstars who have enough fans they can make a profit off of their name and image. Tens of thousands of student-athletes who don’t have name recognition will still play for nothing.

That creates a two-class system that doesn’t feel fair to us, and seems likely to create or exacerbate skills gaps across all sports. We could wind up with a handful of extremely powerful teams — even fewer than we have today — and a huge underclass of teams that never have a shot. The term “Cinderella” could be eliminated from March Madness.

If we’re going to more justly compensate student-athletes for their work, we’d like to see a system put in place that treats what they do more like a job — which it is. Other students do all kinds of jobs for the universities they attend and get paid wages for those jobs.

Yes, many student-athletes are receiving scholarships, but there also seems to be little disagreement these days that they aren’t getting a totally fair shake. Perhaps if we paid student-athletes for playing like it’s a job, schools could stop offering athletic scholarships entirely. If you’re a really good player, you could make enough money at your job to pay for your college tuition; if you’re an average player, maybe you pay to help cover your bills. And scholarships could once again go where they were intended — to those with demonstrated financial needs or high academic marks.

But those ideas all seem farther away now that the California plan is becoming reality.

Will freeing athletes up to earn money for their likenesses result in fairer, more equitable markets for their talents? Or will it just be another step away from love of the game and toward love of money? We’ll find out in four years’ time.