An expansion for rights of student-athletes in California this week spawned a nationwide ripple throughout college athletics.
The signing of the Fair Pay to Play Act in California on Monday — allowing college athletes in the state to profit off their name, image and likeness without repercussion from the NCAA starting in 2023 — caused other states to consider the same decision and jettisoned the NCAA and conferences into fact-finding processes.
This is true for the Sun Belt and first-year Commissioner Keith Gill, who spoke with the Journal via phone Friday. The conference has monitored the rapidly evolving discussion throughout the week. Gill said he’s open to the idea of student-athletes earning outside wages, but it will require more research and understanding by all involved.
“I think with anything, the devil is in the details to provide any kind of benefit or opportunities to students,” Gill said. “I do think they should be tied to education. I know it’s easy to forget that this enterprise is tied to higher education, and that’s an important part of what we do. And education should be central to anything we do in this space. But I’m certainly open minded.
“You can certainly see where the trends are going, where the national conscience is, and so if we can help our students have more opportunities, then that’s certainly something I’m supportive of.”
The footprint of Gill’s conference contains two states that have approached this topic before. In March, Senate Bill 335 was presented in North Carolina but currently sits idle. That bill offered more legal protection to student-athletes at state schools but did not offer pay.
A bill to pay college athletes in South Carolina was filled in 2014 and will be reintroduced again next year, according to the Charleston Post and Courier.
Since California’s law won’t go into effect until three-plus years from now, Gill said he hopes there is time to form a standardized set of rules that will give all student-athletes the same opportunities. He also cautioned against the potential downside that could surface in recruiting.
Schools will need to determine ways to avoid situations where a high school recruit is influenced by the potential sponsorship/outside money that could come with playing at certain schools. Gill said he wants to make sure money comes from legitimate sources.
“How do you manage it? That to me is the real question of trying to make sure that it really is a situation where we haven’t created this, essentially, wormhole to inducements by trying to do something that is kind of supportive of our students,” Gill said. “ Because I think those things can be educational, you know? I mean, the opportunity to go and kind of go and run a small business if you’re a student, that’s great.
“I think as leaders in higher education, we would want to support that because that is taking, like, learning in the classroom and combining with experiential learning, and that’s what we want. We want kind of co-curricular opportunities for our students.”
Gill is a former student-athlete, serving as a running back at Duke from 1990 to 1993. He said in a way, the current conversation doesn’t properly value a college education. During his playing career, the chance to be paid wasn’t a possibility and didn’t even register to him.
That’s a similar sentiment that Noah Hannon shared on Wednesday. The junior is the starting center for the Appalachian State football team. He also serves as the president of Student-Athlete Advisory Council.
Hannon arrived at App State knowing that he wouldn’t get paid. The issue is still very much hypothetical, Hannon pointed out, and it’s not something he’s putting much thought into right now.
“To me, I’m here getting an education, which is a huge payment already that’s worth immeasurably more,” Hannon said. “You can take your education and turn it into a huge benefit. Really, that’s what I’m here for. I’m gaining it.
“I mean, they took a chance on me and I’m working for my education, and that’s going to set me up for life. That’s all I can really ask for. Now, if they want to pay me some money, I mean, come on. Who’s not going to say yeah? But I don’t really have too big of an opinion on it. I’m getting a great thing from this university right now.”
Athletics Director Doug Gillin of App State said in a statement to the Journal that he’s already held a meeting with Mountaineers head coaches about the potential positives and negatives of the legislation starting to pop up. The school plans on being part of the ongoing developments.
“The health, well-being and success of our student-athletes will always be our top priority as an athletics department,” Gillin said. “... We want to be a leader in this discussion, and we look forward to hearing from the NCAA and collaborating with our colleagues across college athletics to identify the best solutions.”
The Sun Belt started this football season strongly, grabbing three wins over Power-Five schools — including App State’s 34-31 victory over North Carolina on Sept. 21. Gill anticipates the conference will continue to blossom even if California’s law becomes the norm. Gill thinks if done correctly, giving student-athletes the ability to profit off themselves allows all schools and programs, both profit and not-for-profit, a chance to benefit.
“I think the way it looks like in Year One isn’t necessarily the way it looks in Year Three and Year Five, and so there are some opportunities there,” Gill said. “... So it’s hard to know what it all looks like but I do think this could provide some opportunities for multiple people, multiple sports over the long run.
“I don’t know that everyone is going to benefit from it. I think that less people benefit from it than actually do, but I do think that it could be across all sports and all genders. And it could have comprehensive benefits kind of throughout the system, particularly as time goes on.”