By Demetrius Dillard
Special to the AFRO

From the days of Wilt Chamberlain and Lou Alcindor in the 60s, Michigan’s Fab 5 and UNLV’s Runnin’ Rebels of the 90s and the Zion Williamsons of today, the long-held debate over whether college athletes should be paid is moving from a mere conversation to an actuality.

Several months ago, California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a bill that would allow college athletes to make money on the use of their name, image and likeness, which was seen by many as a major step forward in the realm of sports, particularly for student-athletes.

This piece of legislation, referred to as the Fair Pay to Play Act, also allows athletes to sign with licensed agents and strike endorsement deals. The bill, scheduled to go into effect in January 2023 in California, does not require schools to pay athletes but simply makes it legal for college athletes to market their name, image and likeness for personal profit.

University of Maryland-Baltimore County (UMBC) basketball player L.J. Owens (Courtesy photo: UMBC Athletic Communications)

“Every single student in the university can market their name, image and likeness; they can go and get a YouTube channel, and they can monetize that,” Newsom said in an interview with the New York Times. “The only group that can’t are athletes. Why is that?”

As it stands, California is the first state to pass such legislation and other states like New York, Florida, Colorado and South Carolina, and even Maryland, are expected to follow suit, drawing interest from numerous lawmakers in those states. 

Last year, Baltimore Del. Brooke Lierman (D) introduced a bill that would have permitted athletes from Maryland’s public universities to collectively bargain over scholarship terms, health insurance and pay for appearances. Though the bill was eventually voted down in committee, Lierman announced plans to pursue the legislation again.

The college sports industry generated a reported $10.3 billion in 2018, but because of NCAA policy, none of the college athletes received a dime for their athletic talents outside of free tuition and meals.

The move would also be a huge plus for Black college athletes, given the fact that they compose well over half of the NCAA’s premier basketball and football talent.  

Morgan State University football head coach Tyrone Wheatley was a college football athlete during the Fab 5 era, one of the most controversial times in college sports history. 

In contrast to universities directly paying players out of their athletic program budgets, the idea of college athletes having the opportunity to monetize off their name, image and likeness is plausible, said Wheatley, who is coming off his first season as head of the program.

“I do like the idea of the young men being able to go out and provide revenue for themselves,” said Wheatley, a former standout running back at the University of Michigan went on to have a stellar 10-year career in the NFL with the New York Giants and the Oakland Raiders.

“If you put the monetization in the individual’s hands, then the player is responsible for his own growth of his brand.”

Similarly, UMBC basketball guard L.J. Owens, offered his perspective on college athletes getting the opportunity to generate compensation for themselves.

“I feel like with all the hard work and with all the time, and putting their bodies on the line, and generating that amount of money for the major sports… I feel like there should be a way whereas though the players should get paid outside of just getting free tuition,” said Owens, a 6-foot-3 junior from Annapolis.

The William and Mary transfer averaged 9.5 points and 2.4 rebounds per game for the Retrievers last season. Should similar legislation pass in Maryland that will take effect in California, Owens added that high-profile Black college athletes in particular would benefit.

“Black athletes make up the better amount of Division I athletes at these big schools,” he said.

“Just looking at the numbers, Black athletes make up majority of the players on these football and basketball teams so they would definitely benefit off their likeness.”

If the ‘Fair Pay to Play’ legislation, hypothetically, were to become a reality in Maryland, Wheatley said he feels it may be beneficial or detrimental for HBCUs, at least in terms of marketability. 

“But and however, there’s a flipside, and the parents and everybody has to understand that marketability, truly, if you have a name… and you’re a four-star, three-star, five-star kid coming out of high school and you go to a Morgan they will follow you,” he said.

“I do want these young men to have money off of their likeness, but at the same time – me as a coach – I see where this trend is going because you’ll have certain young men choosing a college based on their quote-unquote, marketability.”