Robert Gehrke: Utah should show solidarity with California, force the NCAA to let college athletes get paid

Robert Gehrke

On Monday, California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a law that could change college sports by — for the first time — guaranteeing athletes the right to make money off their name, image and likeness. You know, like the coaches do.

This move is long overdue and, even though it doesn’t take effect for four years, it puts the NCAA in a bind.

Since its inception, college athletics has operated with a plantation mentality in which universities and coaches rake in ridiculous amounts of money, thanks to the unpaid labor of student-athletes who never see any of it.

Nationally, universities receive $14 billion each year from athletics programs and the NCAA makes $1 billion, Newsom said, while “the folks that are putting their lives on the line, putting everything on the line, are getting nothing."

It’s a pretty fundamental concept: We own our own image and other people shouldn’t be able to make money off our likeness or our hard work if we can’t. That holds true in almost every walk of life — except for college sports.

Look at the University of Utah, for example. Last year, the school’s athletics programs generated $91 million in operating revenues — including $22.5 million in media and broadcasting deals and $10 million in merchandise licensing.

The football team alone sold nearly $15 million in tickets. And you wouldn’t sell one if it wasn’t for the scores of young men who spend years practicing for combat on Saturdays, but don’t get to reap the benefits.

Despite the U.’s football success over the past decade, almost none of those players will ever put on an NFL uniform. On average, three Utes a year get drafted, out of 108 athletes on the team.

All that the rest of the 1,050 kids who put on a red and white uniform over the past decade have to show for it are the concussions, blown-out knees and hopefully a college degree — which is important, but isn’t enough.

If they can make some money putting their image on a video game or from a social media presence or hawking tires, then they should be able to do that.

The NCAA, of course, doesn’t like it, saying it “would wipe out the distinction between college and professional athletics and eliminate the element of fairness that supports all of college sports.”

I’m not sure about that, but there are real potential problems.

When we talk about paying athletes, we’re mainly talking about paying men’s football and basketball players — because that’s where all the money is.

Yeah, former Duke star Zion Williamson probably would have been more marketable as a college athlete than about 95 percent of the players in the NBA. In Utah, there might be some money flowing to guys like running back Zach Moss or quarterback Tyler Huntley.

And there might be a few exceptions on the women’s side, like Ute gymnast McKayla Skinner, who are high-profile enough to benefit.

Generally speaking, though, it will likely exacerbate the equity gap between men’s and women’s college athletics, and between the high-profile and low-profile sports.

That’s why NCAA rules — not patchworks of state laws — are the best mechanism to address all of the issues that could arise. The problem is that while the NCAA has wasted years talking about it, it has never done much to solve it — nor has it had an incentive to do so.

So it’s going to take states like California — with 24,000 student athletes and some of the most prominent programs in the country — to force the NCAA to act. And it’s going to take other states to join the fight.

House Majority Leader Francis Gibson, R-Mapleton, who was a defensive tackle at Brigham Young University, said he sees the merit in letting athletes get paid.

“There is a ton of money made off athletes, and tuition and housing alone does not cover the wear and tear on the body or come close to the money made collectively by college football and basketball,” he said.

Gibson said he can’t predict what Utah lawmakers might do and, obviously, neither can I.

But what they should do is stand with California and college athletes, pass a law to let Utah athletes earn a paycheck, and join the effort to pressure the NCAA to finally address this issue for all of its 500,000 athletes once and for all.