Booker Debuts Plan to Pay College Athletes

John Reitmeyer | October 11, 2019 | More Issues
Taking a page from a new California law, the senator wants to allow all student athletes to enter into endorsement deals
Credit: Stanford Athletics
Cory Booker (number 81) during his playing days at Stanford University

Student athletes at public and private colleges across the country would be able to profit from their own names and images under a proposal U.S. Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) put forward yesterday as part of his ongoing presidential campaign.

Booker, a former collegiate football player himself, said student athletes should have the right to earn money as leading participants in what’s become a multibillion-dollar sports industry by doing things like endorsing a local business or training younger athletes.

Booker is proposing a national version of a new California law that will permit student athletes to hire agents and enter into endorsement deals and participate in other activities that generate a profit off of their image as an athlete. The California law — which doesn’t allow colleges or universities to directly pay their student athletes — is set to go into effect in 2023.

Booker included the student-athlete proposal in a broader plan to “end exploitation in sports” that he released yesterday as part of his platform to seek the Democratic Party’s nomination in the 2020 presidential race. Other elements of the plan call on colleges and universities to cover medical bills for student athletes long after they graduate and put more emphasis on helping these athletes, who often play while on a scholarship, stay on track academically until graduation.

“We’ve got to make the system fair for everybody,” Booker said yesterday in a video on social media posted to coincide with the release of his initiative. “There’s so much good going on in sports, but we all know better is possible.”

Booker, a former Newark mayor who’s served as a U.S. senator since 2013, announced his campaign for president in April. Since then, he has spent considerable time going to states that play an important role in the presidential primary process, including Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina.

While Booker has been able to raise enough money to remain in the running and has qualified to participate in televised debates, he has failed to gain much traction so far in the polls. In fact, most polls show him well behind Democratic front-runners like former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Elizabeth Warren.

While rolling out his initiative yesterday, Booker pointed to his own experiences playing tight end for Stanford University’s football team in the 1980s. He had been a star player at Northern Valley Regional High School in Old Tappan, winning a state championship.

‘I saw a lot of people who were exploited’

“Having been an athlete in big-time college football, I saw a lot of people who were exploited, in my opinion, who (bore) a lot of the brunt and the pain, but didn’t get the upside,” he said.

California signed the “Fair Pay to Play Act,” the basis for Booker’s sports initiative, into law late last month. The state became the first in the nation to endorse the notion that student athletes should be able to control their own “name, image and likeness” rights.

Even though the California law doesn’t go into effect immediately, its adoption has already drawn a response from the National Collegiate Athletic Association, a nonprofit organization that regulates college sports to preserve the amateur status of student athletes.

“As more states consider their own specific legislation related to this topic, it is clear that a patchwork of different laws from different states will make unattainable the goal of providing a fair and level playing field for 1,100 campuses and nearly half a million student athletes nationwide,” the NCAA said in a statement.

Booker’s proposal would seem to provide a national remedy by giving student athletes a right to profit off of their own images as a matter of federal law. Meanwhile, he is also calling for the establishment of the U.S. Commission on Integrity in Sports, to be comprised of current and former athletes, academics and policy experts, among others. The commission would be used to enhance federal oversight of the NCAA, United States Soccer Federation and the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee, according to Booker’s plan.

Prioritizing health and academics

Among the other proposals he released yesterday was a call to require colleges and universities to focus on the broader health of student athletes and not just their availability to contribute on the playing field after suffering injuries. In addition, Booker would make colleges and universities cover their student athletes’ medical bills for injuries during their collegiate playing days for 10 years after they stop playing.

Turning toward academics, Booker’s proposal calls for schools to be made more accountable for the educational outcomes of their student athletes to encourage improved classroom performance and higher graduation rates. The plan also calls for “lifetime scholarships” for any student athlete who completes two years with a team to ensure they have ample time to complete a degree even if their eligibility to compete runs out.

Some elements of Booker’s plan go beyond collegiate sports, including a call to close gender-pay gaps in professional sports, an issue that generated significant attention over the summer after the U.S. women’s team won soccer’s World Cup competition.

“For too long, we have allowed exploitative practices in professional and college sports to fester — somehow treating sports as different from our broader economy,” Booker said yesterday. “Just as we shouldn’t accept collusion, wage theft, and a massive gender pay gap in any other industry, we shouldn’t accept them in sports.”