Let college athletes cash in

As LeBron James says, they “deserve it.” They’re the ones who make the college sports money machine go.

A new California law, freeing college athletes to make money on endorsement deals, threatens to undermine the rules of compensation set down by the NCAA, whose Indianapolis offices are shown here.

A new California law, freeing college athletes to make money on endorsement deals, threatens to undermine the rules of compensation set down by the NCAA, whose Indianapolis offices are shown here.

AP Photos

In July, a teacher at the University of North Carolina testified before a Senate committee in Washington that some student athletes at the university couldn’t even read.

The university had recruited the so-called students to play football and basketball, the teacher said, and nobody cared if they got a real college education.

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The young men were there to win games. They were there to help the university haul in tens of millions of dollars, in myriad ways, as part of a $14-billion-a-year American industry called “college amateur athletics.”

An industry in which only the athletes are not allowed to rake it in.

California this week became the first state to call out that arrangement for what it is — a sham — and it’s about time. The state passed a law allowing student athletes to sign endorsement deals, hire agents and benefit financially from the use of their likeness. Universities and colleges are not allowed, under the new law, to punish the athletes in any way, such as by withdrawing scholarships.

A bill introduced this week in Springfield, by state Rep. Emanuel “Chris” Welch, D-Hillside, would create the same law in Illinois. We support it.

As Welch said when he announced the bill, “It’s about fairness and equity and athletes being able to profit off their own names and their own likeness.”

The NCAA, the governing body of college athletics, is threatening to sue California, or to levy heavy fines against colleges and universities that obey the new law and allow student athletes — oh, how outrageous — to make money off their talents.

The NCAA prefers the fiction that a student athlete’s full and sufficient reward is a free college education, which often never even happens. The NCAA prefers that the industry’s billions of dollars go only to the universities and colleges, the TV and radio stations, the shoe companies and other corporate sponsors, the merchandisers of team apparel, the coaches and athletic directors, the NCAA executives, the sports agents and the ticket brokers.

The reality is that California has the NCAA over a barrel, and it had better revise its antiquated rules or risk becoming extinct. California is just too big to live without.

“This is one of the biggest media markets on planet Earth,” California Gov. Gavin Newsom told the New York Times. “Media cannot afford not to have California at scale being participatory in the tournaments. They know that, we know that.”

If Illinois passes a similar law, the NCAA will be over an even bigger barrel.

The NCAA’s defense of the status quo is nothing but air balls.

The NCAA complains, for one, that California schools will have an unfair recruiting advantage. Stellar high school athletes will choose to go to college in California because that’s where they’ll be allowed to earn hundreds of thousands of dollars on side deals, such as cutting commercials for Nike shoes.

Question: How is that a problem for anybody but the NCAA?

The NCAA and others also warn that California’s law will lead to the “professionalization” of college sports.

Question: In what way are college sports not already professionalized? The amateur model of college sports fell apart decades ago when coaches started being paid millions of dollars a year.

The simple truth, as LeBron James of the Los Angeles Lakers puts it, is that college athletes “deserve it.” They’re the ones who draw the fans who make the money machine go.

If a college student in an engineering class comes up with a new design for an umbrella, he or she is free to take it to market and make a bundle. If an art student creates a sculpture, he or she is free to sell it. If a biology student discovers a better flu shot, he or she is free to get rich.

Why, when it comes to market freedoms, are college athletes second-class citizens even on campus?

California’s new law is scheduled to take effect in 2023.

The NCAA has until then to join the modern world.

Send letters to letters@suntimes.com.

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