California Pay-To-Play Bill Pushes College Athlete Compensation

NPR's Michel Martin speaks with National College Players Association founder Ramogi Huma about a California bill that will allow compensation for college athletes.

Michel Martin - Host
July 6, 2019


The U.S. Women's National Soccer Team is contending for a fourth Women's World Cup tomorrow. At the same time, its team members have been fighting for pay comparable to that of their male colleagues. Meanwhile, the debate over how college athletes are treated recently reached a new level as well. A bill that allows athletes to be compensated for their names, images and likenesses is now making its way through the California Assembly. The so-called Fair Pay to Play Act passed the state Senate in May. And it's gotten national attention after being criticized by the president of the National Collegiate Athletic Association, Mark Emmert.

We wanted to know more about it, so we called Ramogi Huma. He was behind the 2014 attempt to unionize Northwestern football players. He is the founder and executive director of the College Athletes Players Association. And we started our conversation by asking how this bill is different from past efforts to compensate college players.

RAMOGI HUMA: This is state legislation, and state legislation is different than some of the major pushes in the past. If you look at some of the most compelling battlefronts, you're looking at lawsuits. And some of the lawsuits were - are successful to a certain degree but have not provided what we see as equal rights and protections. I think that right now, this is probably the best leverage that college athletes have ever had in terms of breaking through that threshold.

MARTIN: I'm thinking - the analogy that you draw here is - would be, say, Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook, which is that if he started working on Facebook in his dorm room at Harvard, Harvard doesn't think they have a right to a piece of Facebook. But I think the analogy that the universities might use is a student using the lab facilities to work on some breakthrough cure for cancer, let's say, the university would think, because you're using my facilities to advance your talent, they then deserve a piece of your breakthrough. Do you understand what I'm saying?

HUMA: Yeah. There's a couple aspects to that argument. Number one is the players already had a reputation. Otherwise, they would not be competing in college sports. Does the college seek to enhance that image? Yes. And athlete's reputation - yes. But when a player goes and signs an autograph, does the school somehow have the right to literally just own that player's name, image and likeness? Is that player property of the university? Our answer is no.

Another anecdote was - it was really interesting. David Drummond, who's a vice president of Google - he used to play football at Santa Clara University. And in a keynote address at a symposium, he talked about the fact that Google was developed at Stanford, in part by student researchers. Stanford paid those student researchers very well. So it's not some kind of a rule or moral high ground that says the university has to monopolize every bit of talent whether or not the student is advancing gains using the university's computers or not.

MARTIN: The NCAA president, Mark Emmert, sent a letter to lawmakers urging them to delay the bill, suggesting that the players would be harmed by this. I mean, that was kind of the language that he used. But he said that players, for example, could be ruled ineligible for competition. What's the basis of that? And is that a credible threat?

HUMA: You can never protect someone by stripping them of their rights. The premise is that unless California lawmakers become complicit in denying California athletes equal rights, then somehow those players will be harmed. And that's just a false premise.

MARTIN: And before we let you go, do you feel like you're making headway? Like, you know, part of the reason you got started with this - you were a former UCLA football player yourself. You saw the NCAA suspend your teammate for accepting a bag of groceries when he had no food. You know, you've seen a lot over the course of time that you've been working on this. And I'm just wondering if you feel like your arguments are making headway. Are people starting to take the questions around how college athletes are treated more seriously?

HUMA: I do think there's progress. Not as fast as I would like - you know, you look at the multi-year scholarships are now available, the name, image and likeness lawsuit from Ed O'Bannon that resulted in stipends. There's still a ways to go. Let's put it that way. But I do think there's reform. I think a lot of key people are listening, especially lawmakers.

MARTIN: That is Ramogi Huma. He is the founder and executive director of the National College Players Association, an organization founded to advocate for college athletes.

Ramogi, thanks so much for talking to us once again.

HUMA: Thanks for having me.