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James Madison Dukes players celebrate with students after their NCAA FCS victory over the North Dakota Fighting Hawks this month in Harrisonburg, Virginia. A growing number of states have passed bills allowing student-athletes to receive compensation for their names, images or likenesses. (Scott Taetsch/Getty Images)

Student-Athlete ‘Pay for Play’ Gets Lawmakers’ Attention

By Andrew Smalley | May 24, 2021 | State Legislatures News | Print

As student-athletes across the country train for competition this fall, some will return to campus with the chance to earn money for their play. A growing number of states have passed legislation allowing athletes to receive compensation for their names, images or likenesses. Under these laws, student-athletes could earn money for endorsements, advertising and events such as autograph signings.

After California passed the Fair Pay to Play Act in late 2019, 40 other states introduced similar bills. Currently, 19 states have passed legislation to provide student-athletes the ability to earn compensation. Bills have passed in Texas and Illinois and await the governor's signature. The number of enacted bills related to student-athlete compensation has surged in 2021, with 13 states successfully passing legislation. Some states have cited the need to remain relevant for recruiting to explain the swift passage of legislation. Additionally, nine other states are currently considering legislation related to student-athlete compensation issues in the 2021 session.

The exact provisions of such legislation vary by state, but enacted bills generally include language to prevent the NCAA, conferences and schools from barring student-athletes from receiving compensation for their names, images or likenesses. Many states also allow athletes to hire agents and require advertising and endorsement deals to be reported to schools. However, other state legislation contains unique provisions and different structures for compensation. A proposed bill in South Carolina would create a Student-Athlete Trust Fund that would provide $5,000 per student per year to football and basketball players who remain in good academic standing. The funds would be distributed after a student-athlete graduates.

Bipartisan Federal Action

The student-athlete compensation issue has also attracted bipartisan attention at the federal level, where several bills have been proposed in Congress. In late April, U.S. Representatives Emanuel Cleaver II, a Missouri Democrat, and Anthony Gonzalez, an Ohio Republican, reintroduced the Student Athlete Level Playing Field Act, legislation that would establish a federal standard for student-athlete compensation, create congressional oversight and amend federal law to protect the recruiting process.

In February, U.S. Representative Lori Trahan of Massachusetts and Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut, both Democrats, introduced the College Athlete Economic Freedom Act, which would codify the right of college athletes to market the use of their names, images, likenesses and athletic reputations across the country. It would also allow athletes to use collective representation and retain legal representation to fully exercise these rights. And Republican Senator Jerry Moran of Kansas introduced the Amateur Athletes Protection and Compensation Act, which would prohibit the NCAA and member schools from making an athlete ineligible on the basis of receiving compensation. All of these proposals would preempt enacted state laws to allow for student-athlete compensation. Multiple congressional hearings were held in 2020 to examine the issue, and it’s likely Congress will reconsider it later this summer.

States Move Forward

As Congress considers nationwide action, many states and schools will be implementing compensation for student-athletes in coming months. While California’s legislation would have required compensation begin in 2023, other states have pushed to enact compensation provisions far sooner. Laws in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi and New Mexico would take effect on July 1. While athletes in these states would be eligible for compensation under state law, earning compensation would still be in violation of NCAA bylaws. This could lead to students, schools and states navigating a complex landscape to maintain eligibility and funding. Other states that originally planned to enact provisions of compensation as late as 2025 have also considered moving up the effective date of their legislation.

The approaching deadline has put increased pressure on the NCAA to develop its own plan to allow athletes to earn compensation, a move it first supported in April 2020. NCAA President Mark Emmert told The New York Times that he would urge the organization’s governing bodies to approve new rules regarding compensation before the July 1 deadline. Until then students, schools and states will continue to navigate the ever-changing playing field of student-athlete compensation.

Andrew Smalley is a research analyst in NCSL’s Education Program.

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