After California's legislature defied the NCAA by passing a bill allowing college athletes to sign potentially lucrative endorsement deals, a state lawmaker says Connecticut should follow suit.
"With California and other states moving ahead on this issue, Connecticut also needs to look at this, if for no other reason than to remain competitive for recruitment," said state Sen. Derek Slap, a West Hartford Democrat who serves on the legislature's higher education committee. "Of course, this is also about fairness. Anyone else on campus can be paid for endorsing a product, but athletes, who in many cases are generating revenue for a school, aren't allowed to."
Supporters of California's law say athletes should be able to receive a portion of the billions of dollars they generate for their schools through college sports. Critics, though, say that top athletes already receive full, four-year scholarships that other students do not. Among those who support additional compensation for athletes are UConn women's basketball coach Geno Auriemma and UConn football coach Randy Edsall.
"I hope every state in the union passes the bill," Edsall said last month of the California legislation. "I wish Connecticut would do something about it."
Auriemma said earlier this year that he supported players getting paid, but "It's somebody else's job to figure out how they're going to do that."
"There are a lot of pluses to athletes getting paid," he said. "No one's been able to figure out how to deal with the negatives. I'm sure at some point someone will be able to figure it out. Because the world is changing, and coaches are making billions of dollars and schools are making billions of dollars. So all players get is a free education, the cover of Sports Illustrated, four hours on ESPN every night and an opportunity to grow their brand, so I think it's completely unfair to those kids."
U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy released a report in March calling for students athletes to be paid, describing it as "a civil rights issue."
"These are kids, who may not officially be employees but are essentially working for a for-profit industry, who aren't getting compensated," he said.
On Monday, U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal said he is considering introducing an "athletes' bill of rights" at the federal level.
"I support, very strongly, some kind of fair treatment of athletes -- financially and otherwise," Blumenthal said during a news conference at the state Capitol. "They deserve broader kinds of safeguards against potential exploitation and unfair treatment."
Blumenthal said he favors "some discretion for schools" in deciding which athletes could be compensated and how much they might be paid. The UConn women's basketball team, for example, is far better known and plays in front of much larger crowds than other universities that might not want to compensate their women's basketball players. In the same way, the Penn State football team would likely compensate their players at a higher level than the UConn team.
Critics of additional compensation for student athletes say they already receive four-year scholarships that include housing and meal plans, which adds up to a value of more than $200,000 at some private colleges. Blumenthal acknowledged the scholarships for athletes, but said the issue should be explored further.
"Let's face it. Scholarships are a form of compensation," he said. "I think the time is now to consider additional compensation. ... I want to hear more about what the colleges think. What I don't want to hear is simply dismissing it without accepting the need for some kind of fairer treatment and equity. Some schools are very dismissive, and frankly, the NCAA has been pretty dismissive."
California's law is likely to trigger a legal challenge. The NCAA -- which had called on California Gov. Gavin Newsom to veto the bill, arguing that it would destroy the distinction between amateurs and pros and give California an unfair recruiting advantage -- said last week it is considering its next steps.
In a statement, the NCAA said it is working to revise its rules on making money off a player's name and likeness. But it said any changes should be made at the national level through the NCAA, not through a patchwork of state laws.
In Connecticut, Slap said that he will be speaking to both Republicans and Democrats in an attempt to craft a bipartisan bill.
"I'm just trying to start the conversation," Slap said. "With California's decision, many other states are looking into it. College sports generates $14 billion [annually], and the people who generate the revenue don't get a penny of it. It's big, big money."
State Rep. Tom Delnicki, a South Windsor Republican, said the issue can be bipartisan as lawmakers seek to find the best way to help the athletes.
"The endorsement deals is probably the easiest to tackle," he said. "Paying them is difficult."
Compensation for college athletes is a long-running issue, dating back to a high-profile, class action lawsuit in California against the NCAA in which UConn basketball great Tate George and eight other plaintiffs said the NCAA was using their images without written permission.
The NCAA used a video showing George's famous clutch shot in 1990 when he caught a long inbounds pass from UConn teammate Scott Burrell, spun around in one motion and sank a buzzer-beater against Clemson in the Sweet Sixteen.
George was later dropped as a plaintiff in the case after he was convicted by a federal jury in New Jersey in a real estate Ponzi scheme. The plaintiffs initially won the case in 2014, but a federal appeals court a year later blocked direct payments to the athletes involved, saying colleges still represent amateur athletics.
California's new law applies to students at both public and private institutions -- but not community colleges -- in the nation's most populous state. While the measure covers all sports, the big money is in football and basketball.
Student athletes won't get salaries. But under the law, they can't be stripped of their scholarships or dismissed from the team if they sign endorsement deals.
There are some limitations: Athletes can't enter into deals that conflict with their schools' existing contracts. For example, if the university has a contract with Nike, an athlete cannot sign with Under Armour.
The law represents another instance of California jumping out in front of other states when it comes to social and political change. The movement to allow student athletes to profit from their labors on the court or the playing field has been simmering for years, portrayed as a matter of economic fairness and civil rights.