Oklahoma Sooners vs Houston Cougars

The Sooners take the field during the game between the Oklahoma Sooners and the Houston Cougars at Gaylord Family Oklahoma Memorial Stadium in Norman, Okla., on Sunday, Sept. 1, 2019. IAN MAULE/Tulsa World

A California law, scheduled to take effect in four years, gets at a long-overdue pay inequity problem in college sports.

The law would allow college athletes to hire agents for acquiring endorsement contracts. Other states, including Oklahoma, are considering similar statutes.

College sports is a multibillion-dollar business built on the abilities and personalities of student-athletes, who are not allowed to join in the profits of their work. Schools and head coaches earn millions; the student-athletes get nothing but risk. That is fundamentally unfair.

At least in the abstract, the NCAA levels the playing fields between rich and struggling schools. Hypothetically, it also manages fairness between high-profile athletes and those in less popular sports. It’s all very altruistic in theory.

In reality, players — many who come from poverty — don’t benefit from their efforts, while their work, jersey numbers and images are used to generate millions. College athletes spend the equivalent of a full-time job at practices and games while holding down full-time academic schedules. Some students are asked to do events, sign autographs, meet donors, give speeches and do media interviews.

Full scholarships are limited and usually only for football and basketball players, those from the “revenue sports.” Even the star athletes still need a way to buy basics like clothing or travel home, while players on partial scholarships have to squeeze practice and studying between jobs.

The NCAA has been hesitant to loosen the restrictions on outside earnings. This stubborn position is in opposition to a free-market philosophy and common fairness.

But as the old Dylan song says, the times they are a-changin’.

Some student-athletes have considered unionizing on the argument they are employees of their schools. Others are pondering labor-based lawsuits. And legislators in California and elsewhere have their own ideas.

Mishandled, this is a threat to the viability of the NCAA. The leaders of America’s colleges and universities need to find a solution that brings fairness to the players who attract the big dollars to their schools. The system ought to allow athletes income opportunities, promote degree completion and recognize that integrity ought to be more than just a memory on campus.

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