'Progress' or more potholes? California's NIL law stirs debate in Big Ten

James Hawkins
The Detroit News
Former Michigan guard Jordan Poole,  right, says he "for sure" would have been using his name for endorsements after his buzzer beater in 2018 beat Houston in the NCAA Tournament.

All it took was one shot for former Wolverine Jordan Poole to become a household name.

Two seasons ago, Poole turned into an overnight celebrity when he hit the winning 3-pointer at the buzzer against Houston in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.

Yet, Poole couldn’t cash in on his instant fame since NCAA bylaws prohibit student-athletes to profit from the use of their name and image. That could change in the future after a new law was passed in California that would allow college players in the state to hire agents and make money from endorsement deals starting in 2023.

“I know for sure I would have been using my name after that Houston shot,” Poole, now a rookie with the Warriors, told reporters last week at Golden State’s media day.

"But I feel like it's a huge step in the right direction. I feel like it's a lot of money that college players make that’s going to the organizations and the schools and universities. Being able just to have that pass in the state of California is just huge for the game."

Whether student-athletes should be paid beyond the costs of attending a university has been an ongoing debate — and one that was brought back into the national spotlight thanks to California’s Fair Pay to Play Act, which was signed last week by Gov. Gavin Newsom in the face of opposition from the NCAA.

The bill would allow college athletes in California to financially capitalize on their names, images and likenesses (NIL) — just like the pros — and would prevent schools from stripping student-athletes of their scholarships or kicking them off the team if they sign sponsorship deals. It wouldn’t mean student-athletes would receive salaries from the school.

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The NIL law stirred up no shortage of opinions during last week’s Big Ten basketball media day, starting at the top with commissioner Jim Delany, who said he opposes the California bill because college sports are “an educational arrangement.”

“The student who plays athletics in the Big Ten is in school for education first, that there's an amazing opportunity to get a world-class education here, and there's also amazing opportunity to compete in a great conference with great recognition,” said Delany, who will retire at the end of the year and be replaced by Minnesota Vikings executive Kevin Warren. “It's not the NBA. It's not the WNBA.”

Delany said he would like to see players who are ready for the professional ranks be able to go directly into professional sports, like the G-League for men’s basketball, because “we’re not the minor leagues.”

“To me, the outer limit is the cost of college,” he said. “Once we're beyond the cost of college, we're in pay for play, and I think that puts us in a totally different game.

“We're not perfect, but I think that the opportunities that we have for the great many shouldn't be sacrificed at the altar of the 1 percent that probably would have an opportunity to benefit here.”

Lawmakers in other states, including Colorado, Florida, Illinois, Kentucky, Minnesota, Nevada, New York, Pennsylvania, South Carolina and Washington, announced they will follow California’s lead. 

While there is no similar legislation introduced in Michigan, there is talk about the potential for as much in the future, said Rep. Joe Tate, a Detroit Democrat and offensive lineman at Michigan State from 1999-2003.

The current state-by-state push for change leaves the potential for discrepancies between competing universities.

“In my opinion, the NCAA hasn’t created opportunities to really have these conversations at a nationwide level,” said Tate, who said he likely would support NIL legislation.

“We certainly need to have a conversation around it and actually put everything on the table.”

At the national level, U.S. Rep. Anthony Gonzalez (R-Ohio), a former standout receiver at Ohio State, plans to propose at new national law that would give college athletes the opportunity to make endorsement money.

“Ultimately, there has to be a national solution, whether it comes from Congress or whether the NCAA is able to find a middle road here,” Delany said.  “I really don't understand and don't fully comprehend how — whether you're in South Carolina or whether you're in New York or whether you're in California, how we can operate under 50 different statutes. I view it as a national undertaking.”

Several Big Ten coaches, like Purdue’s Matt Painter and Wisconsin’s Greg Gard, said they’re in favor of doing more to help student-athletes, but expressed concern over the unintended consequences such a bill could create, namely in recruiting.

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“If you go and do this and you open it up, it's not just going to be a bidding war for the schools with the most resources. I swore we were kind of there anyways and that’s what we're trying to fix through the FBI investigation,” Painter said. “We've got to make sure we keep our problems isolated and we try to fix our problem, not make more problems.”

Not all Big Ten coaches were against the first-of-its-kind measure. Nebraska’s Fred Hoiberg, who starred at Iowa State and played 10 seasons in the NBA, viewed the NIL law as “progress.”

“As a former student-athlete, I would have loved to be compensated for my likeness. There's no doubt about that,” Hoiberg said. “Especially playing in my hometown (Ames, Iowa), I think that could have been a pretty good deal for a guy like me.

"It's going to be interesting to see how it all plays out. I have no idea how it will play out. But I do think it is progress, no doubt about that.”

Minnesota head coach Richard Pitino called the Califonia NIL law a "good idea."

Minnesota’s Richard Pitino also was in favor of the bill and called it a “good idea.”

“I know a lot of people have been pushing for it,” he said. “I think the biggest thing now is just getting everybody on the same page, getting all the states, getting the NCAA, getting everybody working together is the most important thing. But the more we can get these student-athletes, I'm all for it.”

Michigan’s Juwan Howard and Michigan State’s Tom Izzo didn’t have a firm stance on the bill because both said they were gathering more information about it. Despite that, Howard called his full-ride scholarship to Michigan “a game changer for my life” while Izzo noted he was “wide open” to anything that benefits student-athletes.

“I sure as hell don't think it's a politician's job to get involved in this,” said Izzo, who added the NCAA should be more proactive, not reactive, on the matter. “I'm baffled by that a little bit.”

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In addition to Poole, several other past and present Michigan and Michigan State players applauded the NIL law. Former Spartan star Draymond Green called the NCAA a “dictatorship” and blasted its current bylaws, which allows schools to give college athletes yearly stipends ranging from $2,000 to $4,000 to cover cost-of-living expenses.

According to USA Today, the Big Ten recorded nearly $759 million in revenue during its 2018 fiscal year, Delany was the highest paid commissioner at $5.5 million in 2017 and Big Ten men’s basketball coaches’ salaries ranged from $1.5 million to $4.1 million last season.

"You spend so much time in college broke, with no money, and yet everybody else was living very well," Green said. "The university is making a ton of money off your likeness.

“It does not make any sense. I can make all the money off your likeness, and the moment you decide to make some money off your likeness, you can't play here anymore. You're ineligible. You're suspended. It's backwards.”

Michigan junior forward Isaiah Livers said all college athletes should be allowed to get paid for their name, image and likeness “like a mini NBA” because there’s not enough time for them to work given their academic and athletic demands. Livers added he doesn’t see it happening anytime soon, but “I hope it would happen now.”

Michigan State senior guard Cassius Winston, the Big Ten preseason player of the year, echoed Livers and said student-athletes should have the opportunity to market themselves in college.

“I'm for it,” Winston told reporters. "If it comes down to that, players are on a really, really huge platform. Everyone has been working on their own brand. And if you can get paid for your brand and your name, why not?”

Beth LeBlanc of The Detroit News contributed to this report.


Twitter: @jamesbhawkins