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Gov. Ron DeSantis is right about letting college athletes make money

Several bills introduced in the Florida Legislature mirror the one that passed in California recently.
Florida Gators run on the field before a game at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium last year. BRONTE WITTPENN   |   Times
Florida Gators run on the field before a game at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium last year. BRONTE WITTPENN | Times [ Times ]
Published Oct. 26, 2019

Earlier this week, Gov. Ron DeSantis endorsed the idea that a group of high-achieving, law-abiding people should be allowed to make money.

Seems obvious. After all, our country is on a first-name basis with capitalism. For a conservative politician, endorsing free enterprise is like supporting someone’s right to breathe.

But in this case, it needed saying.

The governor was talking about college athletes. He was backing several bills filed in the Florida Legislature that would allow athletes to receive endorsements and profit from their images and likeness.

He joked that he doesn’t often support policies popular in deep-blue California, where lawmakers recently passed a similar law. But this is about fairness, he said.

He’s right. It’s time to upgrade an archaic system that financially hamstrings student athletes for no other reason than being good at a sport.

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The National Collegiate Athletic Association has long banned compensating college athletes in the interest of preserving amateurism. That’s a quaint notion from a bygone era when a college education cost less than a used car and athletics wasn’t such a big business.

Today, sponsors like Nike and Adidas fork over tens of millions of dollars to colleges with top-ranked athletic programs. Corporations pay millions to get their names on stadiums and arenas. In most states, the highest-paid public employee isn’t the governor, a surgeon or police chief. It’s a college football or basketball coach.

The colleges — and the NCAA — get the windfall, while the players cannot take a cent. Letting the players make money would somehow sully the games. It showcases a patriarchal “we know best” attitude.

This isn’t about colleges being forced to pay athletes a salary. The California law, and others contemplated in many other states, allows student athletes to sign endorsement deals or get paid when a company uses their image to make money.

Katelyn Ohashi, a former gymnast at the University of California, Los Angeles, was a supporter of California’s new law. She told a powerful story of how NCAA rules prevented her from benefiting financially when a video of her floor routine at the national championship went viral. Her school benefited from the publicity, as did the NCAA, but she couldn’t capitalize financially.

Opponents of the new laws point to how colleges provide student athletes full scholarships and other financial aid. That’s their compensation, they say. The argument ignores the fact that many student athletes only get enough support to offset a fraction of their college costs.

Even more to the point, other students who get financial aid can cash in on their talents. A music major can sell a jingle she wrote during Song Writing 101, while benefiting from a full academic scholarship. Same thing for a math student who sells an algorithm to Facebook. No broken rules. No threats of getting their scholarship yanked. In fact, the colleges would celebrate the creativity and entrepreneurial pluck.

No doubt athletes in top football and basketball programs will benefit the most if they are allowed to sign endorsements and sell their image. But that’s how free enterprise works. Not everyone gets paid the same, just like some colleges garner more corporate endorsements than others. We put higher monetary value on different jobs.

Plus, the colleges will still get to decide what to do with money from ticket sales, naming rights and other endorsements.

The California law isn’t perfect, nor are the first drafts of the Florida bills. The conversation needs to continue, but it’s time to drop the illusion that financial purity benefits college athletes.

They shouldn’t have to play by a different set of rules.