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OPINION / California Could Make College Athletic Recruiting Into a Bidding War

By Tommy Burleson

For millions of Americans, supporting college sports is practically etched in their DNA. Unconditional love for a team, spirited competition, battle cries proudly sung at a win or a loss—all of these are passed down generationally and bind families closer together. Yet as foundational as college sports may be in our culture, it currently faces an existential threat. A new revenue-sharing bill in California, called the College Athlete Protection Act (CAPA), could turn college athletic recruiting into a pay-for-play scheme and bankrupt many of the programs we cherish so much.

California legislators are attempting to mask reality with the name of their bill—in practice, the bill will not protect college athletes. Absent congressional action to create a uniform system, the passage of the CAPA would put the entire collegiate athletic ecosystem at risk.

While there is widespread agreement that college athletes should be able to benefit from the legitimate commercial use of their names, images, and likenesses (NIL), CAPA goes far beyond that. This bill would require universities to share half of the revenue generated from a particular sport’s program, minus the cost of scholarships, with that sport’s players. For programs that generate high revenues, this would mean some players could receive yearly compensation in the six figures.

Diverting this much revenue toward direct player compensation would turn athletic recruiting into a highly expensive, highly complicated bidding war that advantages larger institutions. Consider this: colleges with more financial resources will be able to offer much more lucrative compensation packages to students than smaller schools or historically Black colleges and universities. This creates a de facto “pay-for-play” system, where top talent naturally flows to better-funded institutions, while smaller schools are unable to compete for talent. Gone would be the days of local talent supporting local programs.

Furthermore, the variety of packages between schools would make choosing a school a highly complicated and nuanced process for student athletes. As one article in Bloomberg notes, “these are not simple questions for an 18-to 22-year-old to answer on their own, especially with the pressure of recruiting.” Rather than creating a dynamic environment conducive to good sports recruiting, CAPA would make it so that every student athlete needs a team of lawyers just to do what they love.

If the model established by California’s mandated revenue redistribution bill spreads across the country, where would the money come from? The answer is that it will come directly from other sports programs.

In most cases, a university has one or two highly profitable programs—like football at the University of Alabama or basketball at Duke University—that provide funding for other programs like women’s soccer or track programs. If a state suddenly requires schools to redistribute revenues to recruiting student athletes in those high-revenue sports, then much of the funding for other programs will likely be diverted and those programs will be cut. Although CAPA has language claiming to uphold Title IX and protect women’s and Olympic sports, that language is simply not a practical solution to address the risk these non-revenue sports will face. Such a change will have a detrimental impact across not only college sports but for the United States Olympic teams as well. The vast majority of Team USA members are current or former college student athletes.

To be clear, all of this isn’t to say that we should abandon any NIL policies—far from it. In fact, the NCAA and many universities are already engaging in good faith to chart a path forward that brings clarity and uniformity to the system.

The problem is that California is attempting to shoehorn a flawed government-mandated revenue-sharing policy onto every other state. This goes well beyond the spirit of college athletes benefiting from their own name, image, and likeness. Given that it’s highly likely other states will implement similar policies to remain competitive as recruiters, this is California’s way of effectively force-feeding its destructive policies to the rest of the country.

Rather than letting individual states upend the college athletic ecosystem unilaterally, Congress needs to step in to set a national standard that all states, colleges, and athletics programs can easily comply with. With a national standard in place, sports programs can more easily follow the law and implement policies that protect students and allow them to receive the value they are due without turning recruitment into a bidding war to the detriment of Olympic sports programs and smaller schools.

College athletics are important institutions that bring the American people together, and it’s important that the sports we love continue to thrive. A national policy that allows fair national competition and protects all student athletes, while avoiding detrimental pay-for-play schemes, is a common-sense approach that would give the institution room to grow and adapt, and ensure that everyone can continue cheering on their team for generations to come.