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Is NCAA fighting a losing battle by opposing legislation that would clear way for athletes to be paid?

NCAA President Mark Emmert is opposing legislation that addresses amateurism. (AP)

A bill passed by the California Senate last month could allow Pac-12 athletes in that state to receive financial compensation for their names, images and likeness beginning in 2023, but while it still awaits a hearing and additional approval, NCAA President Mark Emmert has already voiced his opposition by warning that California schools may face a ban from championships.

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In a letter to two California Assembly committee chairs this week, Emmert wrote the bill would “create local differences that would make it impossible to host fair national championships,” and, “likely would have a negative impact on the exact student-athletes it intends to assist.”

It’s no surprise that Emmert has continued to oppose changes to the NCAA’s profitable structure, but with gradual public indifference toward the NCAA’s amateurism rules and mounting legislation, is he fighting a losing battle?

Fair Pay to Play

SB 206, also called the Fair Pay to Play act, is the latest in a series of legal challenges to the NCAA’s amateurism rules. The legal battle has prompted the NCAA – which made over $1 billion in revenue in 2017 – to create its own task force to explore the possibility of athlete compensation.

Most of these cases do not require schools to pay athletes a wage (though a since-overturned ruling in Ed O’Bannon’s famous case proposed that universities put up to $5,000 in a trust that could be accessed by athletes post-graduation). Rather, legal battles have targeted the NCAA’s ownership of the names, images and likeness of athletes.

What’s that mean? It means that, as the rules stand now, athletes can have their scholarships stripped if they make any profit – whether $1 or $1,000 – from signing an autograph or a jersey. They’re also prohibited from receiving discounts, seeking an agent, or accepting an offer of a sponsorship or endorsement deal. Athletes also don’t regain the rights to their names, image and likeness upon leaving school. O’Bannon’s case, for instance, spawned from a video game series that continued to make a profit by using the likeness of athletes who had long since left school.

The struggle with amateurism

In a world where athletes at Power Five conferences are simply students who represent their university on the field, this seems fair. The deal is simple: in exchange for playing for your school, you get a free scholarship, valued at many schools at $60,000 or more.

But that agreement is a bit murkier in practice. Networks pay millions to schools in major conferences for the rights to air their games. An athlete can lose his or her scholarship for accepting $20 for an autograph, but the athlete’s school can sell his or her jersey for anywhere from $75 to $100 apiece. Nick Saban, the head coach of Alabama football, makes $8 million per year. Washington football head coach Chris Petersen earns $4.3 million per year. Mega-salaries aren’t limited to coaches; Pac-12 Commissioner Larry Scott makes $5.3 million per year, while Emmert himself makes about $3 million.

And while it’s true that many of these athletic programs operate in the red, one Washington Post article found that’s typically the result of poor decision-making, rather than the inability to make a profit. The combined income of the largest 48 athletics programs has nearly doubled since 2004. But as earnings grow, programs continue to spend obscene amounts of money to remain competitive. In one example, Auburn University football received approval for a $13.9 million, 11,000-foot big screen for Jordan-Hare Stadium, despite the fact that the athletics department faced a $17 million deficit from the previous year.

A trend toward acceptance

To be clear, a 2017 nationwide poll found most respondents are not in favor of schools paying athletes; however, it’s a trend that has gained approval over time, and results notably vary based on race and age. But two thirds of respondents are just fine doing without the NCAA’s strict rules about names, images and likeness. Meaning, for instance, that poll-takers believe a college athlete should have the right to make money from an autograph or be compensated when his or her name, image or likeness is used to generate a profit from, say, the sale of a video game.

California’s SB 206 falls in line with that approval. The bill would not require universities to pay athletes a salary. Rather, it would ensure that any entity that oversees collegiate athletics (i.e., the NCAA) cannot prevent athletes from receiving compensation for the use of their own name, image or likeness, earning income from endorsement deals, or obtaining an agent.

The bill, which has received bipartisan support, is schedule for a hearing before the California State Assembly Tuesday.

Read more from 710 ESPN Seattle’s Stacy Rost