College Athletes Could Profit from Using Their ‘Brand’ to Endorse Products

John Reitmeyer | February 11, 2020 | More Issues
Controversial bill that would give student athletes direct control over their ‘name, image and likeness,’ clears full Senate, a milestone in its legislative history
Credit: James Holloway via Flickr
Under a law being considered in New Jersey, college athletes could get paid for endorsements.

New Jersey moved a step closer on Monday to giving student athletes the right to score lucrative endorsement deals while still attending college.

A controversial bill seeking to give college athletes direct control over their own “name, image and likeness” made it out of the full Senate, marking the first time the measure has cleared either legislative house since being introduced last year.

The legislation is intended as a direct challenge to rules enforced by the National Collegiate Athletic Association that prevent college athletes from profiting in any way from their on-field performance, even as colleges and the NCAA rake in millions each year from major events and endorsements.

Under the bill, student athletes couldn’t be paid directly by colleges and universities, but they could sign endorsements with sneaker companies or car dealerships, for instance.

No change for five years

The proposed policy change wouldn’t take effect until five years after the law’s enactment, which sponsors say will give plenty of time for a comprehensive, multistate approach that addresses concerns about exploiting college athletes to emerge.

That comes as New Jersey and dozens of other states have proposed bills seeking to prevent college athletes from being exploited by giving them control of their names, images and likenesses.

“It is true that a patchwork (of bills) is not the best way to handle it,” said Sen. Joseph Lagana (D-Bergen). “However, I think we’ll all be in the same ballpark.”

While concerns about the treatment of college athletes have been raised for years, the issue came to a head last year after a bill was signed into law in California that granted college athletes control over their own “name, image and likeness,” but only after a three-year implementation period.

Several weeks after that, the NCAA announced its governing board had voted to allow student athletes to begin using their names, images and likenesses, but “in a manner consistent with the collegiate model.” New regulations could be crafted at any time, but the NCAA has given officials at its divisional levels until January 2021 to address the issue.

Defining ‘fair play’ for student athletes

In the wake of California’s action, Lagana and other New Jersey lawmakers introduced their own version of what’s being called the “Fair Play Act.” It would prohibit athletes from being paid directly by a college or university for participating in a sport, but they could sign endorsement and advertising deals with sponsors or conduct training camps for other athletes — using their own names.

The New Jersey bill would let college athletes hire agents or lawyers to help arrange such endorsements. It would also 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. In addition, athletes would be prohibited from signing endorsements with companies pitching alcohol, tobacco, firearms, gambling and the adult-entertainment industry.

During Monday’s debate on the Senate floor several lawmakers raised concerns about the potential for a patchwork of regulations given the action already taken in California and the likelihood that New Jersey and other states will eventually adopt their own versions of the law.

Sen. Paul Sarlo (D-Bergen) also raised concerns about leaving college athletes prone to “unscrupulous folks” who may try to take advantage of them and their amateur status. He also suggested students who decide to transfer to another college at some point during their career may find their options limited once they profit from their image in New Jersey.

“We provide some of the best student athletes, not just for men’s sports, but women’s sports as well, across the country and we need to protect those students, we need to make sure they’re treated fairly,” said  Sarlo, who serves as an executive committee member of the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association, which also oversees the state’s high school sports programs.

But Sarlo had other concerns about what other states may be doing and said lawmakers need to “make sure we’re on a level playing field across the country.”

Ultimately, the measure passed by 21-11 margin, generating the bare minimum needed to clear the 40-member Senate.

Lagana, a former college football player, addressed concerns with the legislation while speaking to reporters before Monday’s votes, saying part of the goal is to use the bill’s advancement to generate more action at the federal. He noted the NCAA’s recent announcement came just days after New Jersey lawmakers first introduced the Fair Play Act. The issue is also drawing interest from members of Congress, including U.S. Sen. Cory Booker.

“The overarching issue is whether or not a student athlete can sell their likeness or image for an endorsement, and I think that’s where we’re headed,” Lagana said.