WATCH: To pay or not to pay — NCAA athletes?

The coronavirus crisis has brought most organized sports to a halt. That includes the NCAA Men’s basketball tournament which would have crowned a champion last week. As sports fans wait for a return to normal, there’s a big issue coming into focus in college sports. A nationwide movement to allow college athletes to be paid. Some states are moving quickly to pass a hodgepodge of laws giving students this controversial right. And Joce Sterman finds the national body that governs college sports is playing catch up.

Jermaine Johnson: You walk out on that field a couple of times, and you feel that energy. It’s just a beautiful thing.

Joce: Jermaine Johnson played football for the University of Miami Hurricanes, an elite program in the NCAA, the National Collegiate Athletic Association.

Johnson: I just feel like it’s a beautiful thing for kids that go out and grind every day for that.

Joce: From 2009 to 2011, Johnson took the field in front of 50,000 fans that paid big money to watch him play, lining the pockets of the school and the NCAA. But athletes like Johnson weren’t entitled to a penny of those profits, although he says his full scholarship felt like more than enough.

Johnson: When I went to college they gave you a long list like, this is what we’re paying for, this is what your scholarship tree looks like.. I’m like, that’s $30,000 that’s $45,000 I’m great! That’s me, I’m fine, I’m grateful.

Joce: Today, there are half a million student athletes across 24 college sports, but unlike Johnson, many want the opportunity to get paid. When it comes to college sports programs, there’s money flowing: $14 billion in revenue last year alone.

That cash goes to the schools, the NCAA and coaches, but some argue the ones playing the game should be able to profit from their talent.

And that is about to happen.

(video shows NBA player LeBron James applauding Governor Gavin Newsom as he signs a bill)

That’s pro basketball’s LeBron James applauding California Governor Gavin Newsom signing a bill to let athletes in that state make money off their name, image and likeness starting in 2023.

College athletes in California will be free to sign with an agent, endorse products, and be paid by anyone from local businesses, to sports powerhouses. For example, a college athlete could be paid to appear in a sports video game, endorse a sneaker on social media, or for an autographed jersey.

California’s law opens the market for athletes to make money from outside sources. It does not allow athletes to get paid by the school or the NCAA.

California’s law has caused the other states to worry that all the best athletes will be drawn to the Golden State to cash in. 20 states have now started drafting their own versions of the law.

That takes us to Florida, which could be the first to allow college athletes to collect.

Darren Heitner: Universities have benefited off the backs of these athletes for too long, and it’s time now for change.

Joce: Darren Heitner, an attorney out of Fort Lauderdale, wrote two books on sports law, and helped lawmakers shape Florida’s bill on student athlete compensation.

Joce: If I am a student on a college campus right now, I want to make money based on my own name image and likeness, I can do that, but if I sign on to play for a college team, that right goes away.

Heitner: Absolutely. And in today’s day and age where social media proliferates and provides a lot of opportunities, you can be an influencer and earn money based on what you’re able to provide. Meanwhile, a college athlete does not have that same right.

(video shows lawmakers voting on a bill)

Joce: Last month, Florida greenlit that change, passing a law giving athletes name, image and likeness rights in 2021, two years earlier than California. Florida’s Governor has said he’ll sign it.

Joce: Is it fair if Florida is ahead of the curve, if you get legislation passed and in a year or so you this is actually in play, you could begin to recruit athletes who come here knowing that they can exploit their name and likeness?

Heitner: The current landscape is not based on fairness. If Florida schools benefit from the fact that it’s going to pass legislation and have an early enactment date, so be it.

Joce: How big of an impact do you see this having? Are we talking about thousands of athletes potentially exploiting their likeness or do you see this as being a handful of athletes who benefit from this legislation?

Heitner: This is something that the vast majority of college athletes will be able to take advantage of. There will be local companies interested in affiliating with specific athletes. Maybe not six figures income per year, but more money is better than no money. Give them something besides the cost of attendance.

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Johnson: Now…I need a Ferrari? I need a house? I’m like dude chill. You’re 17 years old, back away man. You’re living way too fast now. You haven’t even grown up yet, you’re still a baby.

Joce: For all the fanfare in Florida, former Miami football star Johnson fears some college players aren’t prepared to handle an influx of cash.

Johnson: You’re already getting a free education. They don’t have no idea how to spend money, They have no idea how to save money. You’re keep doing it, you’re gonna think it’s cool until oh ****, I’m broke.

Joce: Former NBA superstar Charles Barkley also worries about the impact on college sports.

Charles Barkley: If I’m an offensive lineman or defensive lineman and nobody’s buying my jersey, they’re buying the quarterback and the running back because those are the glory positions and also they pull up in a nice car because they got a commercial, I think that is going to bring tremendous resentment from team to team.

Joce: How do you answer that, because there will be disparities?

Heitner: I think that the answer is in real life there’s disparity throughout and even in the status quo currently in college sports, there’s disparity, team to team, conference to conference, within the teams. Not everyone is given the same chances to succeed within a team. It’s certainly not the job of any state or federal government to interfere and try to create a system where there’s equality amongst all.

Joce: Despite the national debate, college athletes will likely soon start making money. The action in California and Florida placed pressure on the NCAA to create a streamlined solution and put every state under one standard rule governing how athletes can be compensated. The NCAA promises that rule will be ready for a vote in January of 2021.

Mark Emmert: A patchwork of different laws from various states will create an uneven and unfair playing field for our schools and student athletes.

Joce: That’s NCAA President Mark Emmert, speaking to Congress in February.

Mark Emmert: We simply don’t believe our schools can effectively support students and host fair national competition if college athletics is pulled in various directions by state legislatures.

Joce: Florida’s law goes into effect in July of 2021, with the rest of the country watching to see if the NCAA can beat the buzzer, and enact a governing standard, that will force states to abandon their laws and abide by the new rule.

Heitner: If what we did in Florida caused the NCAA to wake up and provide the college athletes these basic rights and make sure that they’re allowed to earn compensation, the state would back off, until then, we’re going to push forward.

Joce: Today, Jermaine Johnson pushes himself more on the basketball court than the football field.

Johnson: I don’t even watch college football no more, it just disgusts me.

Joce: He left college without a degree, and he regrets it. Johnson hopes the prospect of financial gain for young athletes won’t take away from what he views as the most important part of college athletics: education.

Joce: You know how valuable that education is.

Johnson: I regret it everyday. I wish I had it. Sometimes I cry, because it’s a powerful thing. There’s not a day I don’t think about my education. Not a day.

Joce: The NCAA declined an interview with us on this topic but we know it’s a divisive issue. In a recent poll 60% of those surveyed said student athletes should be able to profit from their name, image and likeness.

Colorado recently passed similar legislation allowing college athletes to get paid in 2023. If the NCAA doesn’t issue national guidelines, there could be attempts to pass a federal law regulating compensation for college athletes.

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