New law in Georgia will allow pay-for-play in college sports

The landscape of college sports in Georgia is about to change forever.

Legislation taking effect July 1 will let student-athletes at Georgia colleges, universities and technical colleges receive compensation for their name, image and likeness (NIL).

Supporters steered the concept of paying college athletes through the General Assembly this year at the same time legislatures in other states were passing similar measures, Congress was looking at the issue and the U.S. Supreme Court was taking up related cases.

“What we’re hoping it will do is put Georgia colleges and universities and the men and women who play for them in a position that when a more comprehensive process is put in place … Georgia athletes will be able to take advantage of that,” said state Rep. Chuck Martin, R-Alpharetta, the bill’s chief sponsor.

Pressure to compensate college athletes beyond scholarships covering tuition, room and board has increased in recent years as major college sports – particularly football and basketball – have become huge moneymakers for the schools as well as TV networks.

“No one could have imagined this would be a multi-billion-dollar business with everyone making millions but the athletes,” said Rep. Billy Mitchell, D-Stone Mountain, who introduced a similar bill into the Georgia House of Representatives. “It’s such an inequitable system.”

The urge to cut college athletes in on the profits also is being driven by instances of athletes running afoul of the NCAA for making a few bucks under the table.

“We’ve had draconian penalties on athletes selling jerseys,” Mitchell said.

Under House Bill 617, college athletes in Georgia will be required to take five hours of a financial literacy and life skills workshop to ready them for the added burdens of receiving compensation for their sports performances.

The colleges have been busy in recent weeks putting those programs in place. In April, the NIL advisory and education firm Altius Sports Partners announced a partnership with the University of Georgia to educate UGA’s student-athletes on adjusting to the new reality.

“Education will be critical to prepare our student-athletes to thrive in a new paradigm,” said Will Lawler, UGA’s deputy athletic director for legal and regulatory affairs.

This month, Georgia Tech launched its 404 Academy of five weekly sessions for student-athletes.

“The 404 Academy is an example of Georgia Tech’s commitment to put our student-athletes in the best position to take advantage of name, image and likeness opportunities,” Tech Athletic Director Todd Stansbury said.

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While most of those opportunities likely will go to football and basketball players, Martin noted that other college sports have been benefiting from increased coverage. He pointed to the barrage of publicity the U.S. women’s soccer team generated for winning the World Cup two years ago and, more recently, the extensive coverage of softball’s Women’s College World Series on ESPN.

“The opportunity for ladies and men in all sports is certainly going to be there,” he said.

Other states have jumped on the NIL bandwagon. Florida, Alabama and Mississippi have passed NIL laws due to take effect on the same day as Georgia’s law.

A NIL law in Tennessee takes effect on Jan. 1, and South Carolina’s NIL law becomes effective next July.

Georgia’s law, however, contains a wrinkle not found in other states’ laws, a revenue-sharing provision giving schools the option of taking up to 75% of an athlete’s earnings for redistribution. That pooled income would be placed into an escrow account from which the student-athlete could not withdraw funds until at least one year after graduating or otherwise leaving school.

Martin said the provision, inserted during the latter stages of the legislative debate over the bill, could put Georgia schools at a competitive disadvantage in recruiting top high school athletes.

“In a competitive world, are you going to want to go to a college or university that chooses to take 75% of your compensation?” he asked.

However, Martin said he hopes the competitive nature of the market for top athletes will convince Georgia schools to “do the right thing.”

The state laws eventually could be superseded by Congress, which has seven versions of NIL legislation before it. The Georgia law is set to expire either in mid-2025 or when Congress passes a federal law establishing pay for college athletes nationwide.

The U.S. Supreme Court also has the issue on its docket. The justices ruled unanimously June 21 that the NCAA may not put limits on modest education-related payments to student-athletes.

The court heard oral arguments in March in a broader case from California brought by former University of West Virginia running back Shawne Alston, who sued the NCAA and several college leagues in 2014 for not allowing compensation beyond his scholarship.

The uncertainty has left colleges unsure what to do to prepare for the new era, other than provide education courses to student-athletes.

“We know something’s going to happen on July 1,” said Bryan Johnston, spokesman for Georgia Southern University’s Athletics Department. “We’ll see which way this goes and react accordingly.”

Mitchell said he doesn’t expect the uncertainty to last long. There’s too much pressure on the NCAA to act, he said.

“I expect the NCAA will do something pretty quickly,” Mitchell said. “Colleges are starting to recruit off this.”

Photo:  Jeff Schultes / Shutterstock.com

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