The word went out minutes into last Wednesday’s meeting of California State trustees: The university had asked Gov. Gavin Newsom to veto a bill to let student-athletes seek money beyond the costs of attendance.
But few, if any, of the university leaders knew that Newsom had already decided to sign the measure and push the state into a confrontation over the economics of college sports.
Even if the National Collegiate Athletic Association ultimately prevails in the courts or through other means, it must reckon more immediately with a question whose answer could reverberate from coast to coast: How could some of the mightiest brands in American athletics, backed by some of the most powerful, politically connected institutions in California, suffer such a stunning setback in a statehouse?
“It was always going to get out,” said State Senator Scott Wilk, a Republican who is vice chairman of California’s Senate Education Committee. “But by the margins it got out, it was impressive. It was that perfect storm.”
Indeed, the final votes looked like lopsided football shutouts: Every legislator who cast a vote backed the measure to upend the model of amateur sports. Not one publicly sided with the wishes of the state’s universities or the top leaders of college athletics.
Interviews with the governor, lawmakers and other people familiar with the workings of the California Capitol suggested the N.C.A.A. and the universities were undone by a blend of forces, including an uneven lobbying effort and shrewd work by the bill’s lead sponsor. There was also sustained hostility toward the N.C.A.A., which is based in Indianapolis, as a distant juggernaut; deep skepticism that the association was willing to make consequential changes to its longstanding rules; and a governor, himself a onetime baseball player at Santa Clara, who had pushed for changes in college sports.
One danger for the long besieged but freshly staggered N.C.A.A. is that California’s move could prove to be just the leading edge of legislative efforts around the country to reshape the model of athletes as amateurs, an idea that has dominated for generations as the foundation for building college sports into an industry worth billions of dollars. In recent weeks, lawmakers in other states have voiced support for ideas that sound much like the ones that gained consensus in Sacramento, and legislation is formally pending in some legislatures.
The N.C.A.A., which has often worked through legal and public relations battles with only limited modifications to its rules, could halt that momentum among lawmakers by winning a court victory in California. In the meantime, though, it is not clear whether or how the N.C.A.A. might change its political strategy, which in California largely relied on member institutions and at least two letters from association leaders that mirrored long-repeated talking points and, state officials said, did little or nothing to advance their cause.
The N.C.A.A. said in a statement on Monday that it “agrees changes are needed” to its rules about endorsements. It asserted, though, that it — not lawmakers — should be in charge of crafting new, nationwide rules. It warned that it was “clear that a patchwork of different laws from different states will make unattainable the goal of providing a fair and level playing field” (an argument it echoed in its so far unsuccessful push for federal instead of state regulation of sports betting).
Multiple California universities and their allies — which together spent more than $500,000 lobbying state legislators on an array of issues this year — did not respond to messages or declined requests for interviews about what transpired in Sacramento after Senate Bill 206 was introduced in February.
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But the governor and Democratic and Republican lawmakers depicted the N.C.A.A. as politically impotent in California, the nation’s most populous state, and its universities as often distracted or resigned in the months leading up to the bill’s signing. Worse yet, they said, the N.C.A.A. and the universities sent erratic, sometimes conflicting messages about the legislation’s strengths, weaknesses and potential consequences.
“They kept changing their argument,” said State Senator Nancy Skinner, a Democrat who was the bill’s architect. But officials recalled one familiar and repeated plea: that California should give a previously announced N.C.A.A. committee time to come up with its own proposals, which are expected to be announced by late October.
Newsom, in an interview with The New York Times before he signed the legislation, said he had considered the group’s talks to be a bargaining chip. By his account, his office sought a private preview of the group’s tentative ideas. Had those possible proposals been convincing, he said, he might have been willing to derail, even by veto, the bill that is now law.
“They said, ‘We don’t have enough time to do that,’” Newsom recalled, “which said everything I needed to know about how sincere they are, and how far they’re willing to go.”
In a statement to The Times, the N.C.A.A. said it “offered to share the working group’s report when finished” and noted that it did not “have final information to share because the working group’s efforts are ongoing.” The association said, though, it had told California officials about the committee’s “current progress.”
Newsom said that other efforts to influence him had been similarly lackluster.
The University of California, which legislators said had seemed more focused on defeating a measure related to its work force, “didn’t say one word to me,” the governor recounted. A meeting with Stanford’s president, Marc Tessier-Lavigne, proved unpersuasive. And, according to the governor, the N.C.A.A. enlisted Timothy P. White, the California State University chancellor, as an intermediary to make its case.
The exchange, which the California State system declined to discuss, yielded no breakthroughs for the universities.
“He said, ‘I get it — I respect your point of view, they have a different point of view, so be it,’” Newsom said. “We didn’t have to indulge in flights of fancy and overly indulging ourselves with arguments that all of us are very familiar with.”
Indeed, the bill’s opponents faced a Capitol where views had hardened quickly, especially after the N.C.A.A.’s president, Mark Emmert, warned in June that California universities could be punished if the bill became law.
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“This is one of those issues that is nonpartisan,” said Skinner, whose bill drew support from Republicans in part because they saw a reliance on the markets to resolve what they perceived as a stark inequity.
“They exploit young people to their detriment for a profit, and it’s offensive,” Wilk, a former trustee at a community college, said of the N.C.A.A.
Years of public polling that showed rising support for compensating college athletes for their talents did not go unnoticed in Sacramento. Still, it was not until the final debate in the State Senate, lawmakers said, that the prospect of unanimous chambers became reality.
Senator Brian Jones, a Republican from San Diego County who said he had not been aggressively lobbied either way, said he arrived on the Senate floor expecting to oppose the bill. The debate, though, led him to reconsider his thinking, as did a series of pointed queries from one of his children, a community college volleyball player.
“He was just asking questions, he wasn’t advocating one way or the other,” Jones said. “As I had to answer his questions, I kind of had to come up with answers that made sense. I just worked myself into supporting it.”
There are other political perils on the horizon for the N.C.A.A. In New York, a state senator has filed legislation that effectively mirrors the California law and adds an expensive twist: a requirement that colleges pay 15 percent of the money earned from sports ticket sales to student-athletes.
On Monday, the day Newsom announced his move in California, legislators in Florida and Illinois filed bills of their own. Federal lawmakers, as well as officials in Colorado, Pennsylvania, South Carolina and Washington State, have also signaled unease with the N.C.A.A.’s way of doing business. Even in states where college sports are prized passions, the association and its policies have gradually grown more alarming.
“I think you could very well see a groundswell in statehouses across the country against the N.C.A.A.,” said Trey Lamar, a state representative in Mississippi who once filed a bill to limit how the association conducts investigations in the state.
“They just flat-out overstep their bounds in so many different areas,” said Lamar, who was a running back at Mississippi. “They’ve gotten too big for their britches, and they need to come back to the table.”
After Newsom’s decision became public on Monday morning, the N.C.A.A. chose not to repeat its threat that universities there could be barred from competition. California’s major universities seemed to adopt a more conciliatory approach, hoping that state officials might reconsider the law’s provisions.
And at the University of California, Los Angeles, Chip Kelly, one of the nation’s highest paid college football coaches, said he saw the law as “progress.”
“The N.C.A.A.,” he said, “will have to make their adjustment.”