With schools starting up again, plenty of young golfers are considering their options for where to pursue their futures in golf and their college degrees. Thanks to new laws set to go into effect in the upcoming years, California and Florida may be at the top of these young golfers’ lists. What’s the big draw? In a word: cash.

The argument surrounding whether collegiate student-athletes should be free to sign endorsement deals, hire agents, or make money from the commercial use of their name, image, and likeness is not a new one. Questions continue to pile up as more states approach changing their laws: 

-Will student-athletes come out on top at the end of the day, or will sponsors reap more benefits?

-Will these new laws grow golf’s popularity and attract more young athletes to the game?

-What will golf look like five years from now with these changes? What about in 10 or 20 years? 

But with a California bill signed into law in 2019 and a Florida bill passed right on its heels, the debate is coming to a head — and future collegiate golfers will be affected, for better or worse

It’s the law, then and now 

As it currently stands, the National Collegiate Athletic Association prohibits its athletes (golfers included) from receiving compensation from outside parties. Divisions I and II schools provide more than $3.6 billion in athletics scholarships annually to more than 180,000 student-athletes. Division III schools do not offer athletics scholarships.

California’s Fair Pay to Play Act changes the game. Under the new law — set to go into effect Jan. 1, 2023 — student-athletes at colleges and universities in the state can receive compensation for commercial uses of their names, images or likenesses. It does not create the right for these students to be paid by their schools for athletic participation, but it does allow athletes the opportunity to hire agents and make money through commercial deals.

The skinny on the bill

The passage of California Senate Bill 206, more commonly known as The Fair Pay to Play Act, into law makes California the first state in the nation to create a legal right for college athletes to be compensated for the commercial use of their identities. 

The law, when in effect, will make it illegal for colleges and universities within California to deny student-athletes the chance to receive payment or other compensation for the use of their names, images, and likenesses (NIL). It also permits college athletes at California schools to hire agents to help negotiate and secure endorsement opportunities.

A key limitation of The Fair Pay to Play Act is that a college athlete cannot sign a contract with a company if it would conflict with a school sponsorship already in place. So, if a student-athlete’s school already has an agreement with Adidas, that student couldn’t sign a contract to wear and promote Nike apparel.

States race to keep up with California and Florida

Myriad states have similar bills passing through state legislatures, which could increase the pressure on the NCAA to modify their rules regarding external compensation and endorsements for student-athletes.

Florida’s new law is most pressing. Gov. Ron DeSantis signed it into law in June 2020, and the bill is set to go into effect July 2021. This accelerated deadline in Florida will force the NCAA, and likely the USGA, to make decisions regarding their own guidelines for student-athletes and amateurs.

 

Other states with similar bills already proposed or introduced include:

  • Colorado
  • Connecticut
  • Illinois
  • Kentucky
  • Maryland
  • Minnesota
  • Nevada
  • New Mexico
  • New York
  • North Carolina
  • Ohio
  • Pennsylvania
  • South Carolina
  • Washington

 

If the NCAA can’t beat ‘em, they’ll join ‘em

The NCAA initially tried to fight the passage of California’s law, arguing that it would make it unattainable to provide a “fair and level” playing field for its college athletes and bring chaos to the world of college sports. The argument was raised that if California moved forward with this law, the most talented athletes would funnel into California, creating an imbalance in talent and sparking other states to enact similar laws to remain competitive. (As we’ve seen, other states have certainly followed suit.)

But by October 2019, the NCAA had changed its stance. Its Board of Governors voted unanimously to permit students participating in athletics the opportunity to benefit from the use of their NIL “in a manner consistent with the collegiate model,” according to the NCAA’s statement. They also directed — but did not require — each of the three NCAA divisions to immediately consider any relevant and timely updates to their bylaws and policies, and to enact those rules no later than January 2021.

“We must embrace change to provide the best possible experience for college athletes,” said Michale V. Drake, chair of the board and president of The Ohio State University, in the NCAA statement. The board also said that any modernizations should treat student-athletes as any other students when it comes to their freedom to earn money and ensure that they are not treated as employees by their schools.

Since the California act was signed into law, the NCAA has been lobbying Congress to step in and create some consistency across states by establishing a federal framework addressing NIL payments. At the time of writing, Congress had not announced any official action regarding the NCAA’s request.

Stakes could be high for young golfers

Student-athletes already in college will be minimally affected by these new laws, but they could play heavily into where younger athletes, golfers included, choose to pursue higher education and the next level of their athletic endeavors.

A big question also remains as to how this may affect a collegiate golfer’s amateur status. According to the Rules of Amateur Status for the United States Golf Association, a student-athlete golfer will lose amateur status and eligibility as an NCAA student-athlete if they take on an agent, sign endorsement deals, or receive NIL payments. 

Herein lies the main hurdle for everyone involved: If California schools follow state law and allow student-athletes to receive NIL payments, take on agents and sign endorsement deals, they threaten their student-athletes’ NCAA eligibility — and in the case of golfers, amateur status as well — and their school’s NCAA participation. If the NCAA does not update its rules allowing California schools, and schools in any other states that pursue similar bills, to follow their state law, it risks losing many of its top schools. 

Even if the NCAA updates its rules to match what California and Florida laws allow, college golfers, risk losing their amateur status if the USGA does not update its own rules. Like everything else with this law, it gets more complicated the longer you look at it. 

What’s next?

Much could change before either Florida or California’s law goes into effect.

There are plenty of legal arguments that could challenge the new law, from parties including California colleges and universities, the Pac-12 Conference, the Mountain West Conference, and the NCAA — the last of which was hit in June with a federal antitrust lawsuit that seeks to prevent the association from limiting the number of NIL payments student-athletes can accept and seeks damages for potential past earnings that athletes have been denied by current NCAA rules. 

Collegiate golfers looking to maintain amateur status will have to be careful either way and must wait to see if the USGA modifies its amateur rules to allow for NIL payments, endorsement deals and contracts with agents. (It’s worth noting that the USGA does not prohibit golfers from making money off endorsements or NIL payments; they do, however, have to give up amateur status in order to do so.)

If the amateur status isn’t a concern, the question still remains of the likelihood of companies to choose relatively unknown golfers for endorsement deals or as avatar characters in video games or other collateral. However, with the introduction of the PGA Tour University Ranking List, we could see this change. 

The new PGA Tour University calls for a ranking of the top 15 college players who automatically will receive exempt status on the tour’s developmental circuits. In order to be eligible for this ranking, players must be NCAA Division I golfers who complete a minimum of four years in college, or who complete three years but deliver intent and proof of early college graduation.

Assuming that the NCAA complies with the pressure created by California and Florida’s laws, these rankings will make it easier for brands to determine which college-age golfers may be the next hot thing and to pursue them before the golfer even goes pro. 

And if a young golfer knows he or she has what it takes to get into one of those top 15 spots on the ranking list, and that they can make money from endorsements or NIL payments while working on their degree from a school in California? You can bet that’s where they’ll focus their energies.

No one really knows how this will shake out

All of this to say, there are still more questions than answers for college athletes and the parents of those who are set to benefit most from laws like California’s Fair Pay to Play Act. And while lots of people have likely formed opinions on the topic, those who hold the biggest stakes are tight-lipped for now.

“Nobody knows what this means going forward,” Doug Knuth, athletic director at the University of Nevada, Reno, told The Nevada Sagebrush. “I’ve heard back from a number of my colleagues around the country saying that the devil is in the details … We just don’t know right now.”

This certainly isn’t the last we’ll be hearing about the new laws in the Sunshine and Golden States, and all the others coming on their heels. With less than a year before the first law goes into effect, the pressure is on to find a solution that works for all parties, or risk seeing major changes to NCAA sports — golf included. 

Be sure to check back with Stick and Hack in the coming months for updates on this law, the federal and NCAA responses and more.

Kaitlin Schuler

Kaitlin is a contributing writer for Stick and Hack. Her dad is a lover of the game, so she's always owned a set of clubs—despite only occasionally making it out to a course. Kaitlin may not be a golf fanatic, but she loves writing, reporting, and spending hours searching for the answers to strange questions. (Got some odd questions related to golf or its history? Send a message her way!) kschuler@stickandhack.com