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Larry Stone: Drew Stokesbary’s bill to pay college athletes unlikely to pass, but it’s a step in the right direction

Oklahoma quarterback Kyler Murray speaks during  Orange Bowl media day on Dec. 27  in Miami Gardens, Fla. (Brynn Anderson / AP)
By Larry Stone Seattle Times

SEATTLE – When Drew Stokesbary was in law school at Notre Dame and his fellow students would debate the idea of paying college athletes, he was squarely in the “no way” camp.

Now a state representative in Washington from Auburn, Stokesbary’s thinking on the subject has evolved. In fact, it has flipped, to the point the Republican has introduced legislation to allow student-athletes enrolled in Washington’s colleges to earn compensation.

House Bill 1084, which has been pre-filed for the upcoming Legislative session and will likely be referred to the House Civil Rights and Judiciary Committee, isn’t likely to pass any time soon. Stokesbary recognizes that. He’d be happy to get a hearing when the Legislature convenes Monday. His goal, he says, it to advance the conversation about amateurism, and perhaps pressure the NCAA into changing its draconian rules. “Cartel-like” is the way he describes the NCAA.

After talking to Stokesbary, the House Republican floor leader, I came away impressed that his passion for the idea is genuine. And convinced he’s on the right track. I’ve long been an advocate of compensating players in some way for the $8 billion in revenue they generate for the NCAA. His plan is thought-provoking, and he has pre-emptive answers for just about every concern you might come up with.

Stokesbary’s change in perspective, he said, came after observing the growing amount of money going to those on the periphery of college athletics – the coaches, administrators and bowl officials. Meanwhile, the athletes themselves, who generate the bulk of the revenue, are forbidden from receiving compensation.

“That seemed unfair to me,” he said. “And I see more and more examples of the NCAA trying to enforce rules in ways that seem increasingly arbitrary. As college sports fans, we like the idea of a pure class of amateurs, but if we’re being honest, we have to acknowledge it doesn’t exist now, and maybe never existed.”

He cites two examples of those arbitrary rules. One is Kyler Murray, a professional athlete on one hand (receiving a nearly $5 million signing bonus from Major League Baseball’s Oakland A’s) and the Heisman Trophy winner in football for Oklahoma on the other. And swimmer Michael Schooling, who received a $750,000 bonus from his native Singapore for beating Michael Phelps in the 2016 Olympics, remained an amateur in the NCAA eyes and continues to swim for the University of Texas.

“It defies common sense,” Stokesbary said. “Why can an athlete be paid by one governing body and not another?”

The distinguishing characteristic of Stokesbary’s proposal is that it doesn’t require a school or any other party to pay college athletes, and thus doesn’t threaten nonrevenue sports (to anticipate one concern). It simply allows the athletes to be compensated by any party for their services up to the fair-market value of those services, and to retain an agent. Both are prohibited by NCAA rules

To use Stokesbary’s example, under his bill a shoe company would be able to pay a University of Washington running back $50,000 to appear in a television commercial. And if the NCAA or Pac-12 tried to prohibit such payment, it would be a violation of the Washington State Consumer Protection Act and state antitrust laws.

Could the school itself pay athletes, if it so chose? Stokesbary is open to that. He points out that nonathletes in college have the opportunity to find paying jobs in their field, so why not athletes?

“The way the bill is written, it’s intentionally very open-ended and permissive,” he said.

Boosters, he said, would be able to compensate athletes, but only in a reasonable fashion related to the value of services provided. In other words, he said, a booster could not write a prospect a million-dollar check, but Nike could write a million-dollar check for an athlete to appear in a shoe commercial if it routinely wrote million-dollar checks to others for a commercial.

“Let’s say a big Tyee Club member at UW is an auto dealer,” he said. “He couldn’t hire (quarterback) Jake Browning to work a summer job. With this bill, it would be possible, but he’d have to pay Jake Browning what he pays other car salesmen.”

Stokesbary believes that in such a system, premier athletes would stay in school longer, because they no longer would feel pressure to turn pro to cash in on their talent. That would enhance both the fan experience and their educational experience.

Stokesbary can hear you screaming, “But what about their scholarship? Isn’t that compensation enough?” His counterargument is that yes, it’s indeed valuable, but if you are providing services that result in earnings that far exceed the value of that scholarship, you should be able to get a share of it.

“There are a number of people, high-profile cases, who are contributing to the university and NCAA far more than the $50,000 value of tuition,” he said. “It seems kind of unfair that at the end of the day, the people in charge get to say, ‘We’ll keep all the money, and you don’t get any.’ ”

Stokesbary said as “one of the last Republicans left in King County,” this proposal is consistent with his world view that favors a free-market system with government out of the way. But to advance in the legislature, the bill would need bipartisan support, and he believes it’s a concept Democrats can get behind as well.

What do the state schools think about this? Hard to say. I contacted Washington, Washington State and Eastern Washington, and none made its athletic director available for comment. A WSU rep did say that as a member of the Pac-12, “we will still have to follow all conference and NCAA rules.”

Stokesbary recognizes it would be difficult for our state schools to act as lone wolves, even if they had the law behind them. Even if they could successfully fight a sanction in court, would it be worth it if they had to forfeit games or titles, even temporarily?

“They are between a rock and a hard place,” he said. “They want to be competitive and support students, but the NCAA has a lot of power. It puts them in an awkward situation.”

In the end, though, it’s good to have this conversation. We are inching toward the day when athletes get their fair share of the revenue they create. This is another small step down that road.