After voting in recent years to legalize sports betting and to regulate fantasy sports games, New Jersey lawmakers are turning their attention to collegiate sports and concerns about the treatment of student-athletes.
Citing a need to protect the rights of student-athletes and guard against their exploitation, a new piece of legislation introduced last week in the state Senate seeks to make it legal for college students to profit from their names and images, such as by signing endorsement deals or other advertising contracts.
Sponsors say the New Jersey Fair Play Act is modeled on a recently enacted California law. It marks the latest challenge to highly restrictive rules for student-athletes that are enforced by the National Collegiate Athletic Association, a nonprofit organization that regulates college sports to preserve the amateur status of students. Those rules prevent student-athletes from profiting in any way from their on-field performances, even as colleges and the NCAA rakes in millions.
“Things have to change, and that can only happen if we take action,” said Sen. Sandra Cunningham (D-Hudson), one of the sponsors of the legislation. “By allowing students to accept endorsements and profit off their likeness, we can put them in control of their future, without having to rely entirely on the goodwill of the school they attend.”
California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed his state’s Fair Play Act into law late last month after similar issues related to fairness and the exploitation of student-athletes were raised in his state. The California law doesn’t go into effect immediately, but it will eventually give student athletes full control over what are known as “name, image and likeness” rights.
‘Fundamentally unfair’ restrictions
The bill introduced in the New Jersey Senate last week seeks to extend the same rights to student-athletes here, according to Cunningham and fellow prime sponsor Joseph Lagana (D-Bergen).
For example, while athletes couldn’t be paid directly by a university for their on-field performances, they could sign endorsement deals with sponsors to support a product or conduct a training camp for other athletes — using their names. They could also hire agents or lawyers to help arrange such endorsements. The law would prohibit the NCAA or a university from rescinding a scholarship — which currently is a main enticement for athletes to attend a college — if they seek to profit from their own image.
“The restrictions currently placed on our student athletes are fundamentally unfair,” said Lagana, who played college football. “A lot of people, including many at the NCAA, earn large amounts of money off of the blood, sweat and tears of talented young New Jerseyans in this State and, frankly, across the country.”
The New Jersey legislation would include restrictions, such as prohibiting a student-athlete from promoting adult entertainment, alcohol, gambling of any kind, tobacco, electronic smoking, pharmaceuticals, controlled dangerous substances or firearms.
Several other states have already introduced similar legislation in the wake of California’s action, including Florida, New York, South Carolina, Minnesota and Pennsylvania. And U.S. Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) — a former Stanford University football player — is backing federal legislation that is modeled on the California law.
A Booker version at federal level
“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,” Booker said earlier this month when announcing his support for the federal legislation as part of his ongoing run for U.S. president.
Representatives from the NCAA did not respond to a request for comment on Friday. But after the adoption of the California law last month, the organization cautioned against the creation of a “patchwork of different laws from different states.”
“The NCAA agrees changes are needed to continue to support student-athletes, but improvement needs to happen on a national level through the NCAA’s rules-making process,” the organization said in a statement.
Pete McDonough, senior vice president of external affairs at Rutgers University, raised a similar concern in an interview Friday.
“It’s a very complicated issue that cries out for a national solution,” said McDonough, whose university is a member of the “Big Ten,” the nation’s oldest collegiate athletic conference.
Level of support not clear
It’s unclear how much support there will be in the state Assembly and Senate for the bill, but lawmakers have shown in recent years that they aren’t afraid to be on the leading edge when it comes to regulating sports-related activities. For example, last year New Jersey became one of the first states to legalize sports betting after a landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling. That action came about a year after lawmakers voted to begin regulating online fantasy sports games.
Following the introduction of the New Jersey Fair Play Act last week, Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-Gloucester) signaled his support.
“These young men and women train hard to use their skills for their teams and their schools, they shouldn’t be shut out from any financial benefits they help create through their success on the playing field, athletic courts or other sports forums,” Sweeney said. “They earn it and they deserve it.”
Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin (D-Middlesex) said he is interested in giving the legislation a close review. “It’s something I believe we should explore, but ensuring the integrity of amateur athletics at the college level is paramount,” Coughlin said. “This would be a game changer for student athletes.”
Gov. Phil Murphy’s office declined comment on the bill Friday, citing a general office policy of not commenting on pending legislation.