SACRAMENTO — There were two guests of honor at the monthly meeting of the Oakland Rotary club in November 2015: the University of California marching band and a sports economics expert railing about the N.C.A.A.’s rules barring college athletes from collecting compensation for their play.
While the band riled up the crowd in the small theater — it was the week of Cal’s rivalry football game against Stanford — the conversation about a multibillion-dollar enterprise dependent on amateur athletes caught the ear of an audience member, Nancy Skinner.
Her response could shatter the business model of major college sports.
Termed out of the State Assembly in 2014 and considering a run for the State Senate, Skinner had spent much of her adult life championing causes that one might expect from a Berkeley activist: organizing graduate assistant teachers, banning Styrofoam from fast-food businesses and raising taxes on the rich.
“All of a sudden the light bulb was going off,” Skinner said of the discussion at the Rotary meeting. “Rather than being the bystander going, ‘Gosh, this is so unfair, how do these people get away with this?’, I’m like, ‘Hey, if I’m in the Senate, can the state do something about it?’”
She is about to find out.
Skinner, who was elected to the State Senate three years ago, produced a bill that would allow college athletes in California to be paid for the use of their name, image and likeness — be they basketball stars signing their own marketing deals or water polo players advertising offers of swim lessons.
The Fair Pay to Play Act, which Skinner wrote with Steven Bradford, a fellow Democrat in the State Senate, cleared the State Assembly on Monday by a vote of 72-0, with support from civil rights advocates and free-market proponents. A version of the bill had already cleared the Senate.
Once the chambers work out any differences, which is expected to be a formality, the legislation will be headed for one more significant hurdle — Gov. Gavin Newsom will have 30 days to sign it.
The measure, S.B. 206, would go into effect Jan. 1, 2023, and it has provoked the expected opposition from the N.C.A.A., the University of California and California State University systems and prominent private colleges like Stanford and the University of Southern California.
But Skinner’s bill recently gained some very high-profile support.
“This law is a GAME CHANGER,” James wrote.
A day later, Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont retweeted James’s message and added one of his own: “College athletes are workers,” Sanders wrote. “Pay them.”
This bill is the latest tussle in a longstanding debate about the commercial spoils of N.C.A.A. amateurism, a model that has largely survived court challenges even as it has been whittled at the margins.
In recent years, the N.C.A.A. has allowed colleges to grant “cost of attendance” stipends along with scholarships, relaxed tough rules on transferring and encouraged spending on mental health treatment and meals for athletes, though most changes have required prompting by the courts or public opinion. (The N.C.A.A. did away with limits on food that could be provided for athletes when Shabazz Napier, a Connecticut basketball star, told reporters at the 2014 Final Four that he often went to bed hungry.)
But opponents of the California bill see it as crossing a critical line, professionalizing collegians.
“We’re firmly against anything that would lead to a pay-for-play system,” said Larry Scott, the commissioner of the Pac-12 Conference, which has four universities in California and eight outside the state.
Scott and other leaders in college sports — including the N.C.A.A. president, Mark Emmert, in a letter to California legislators this summer — paint a doomsday scenario for the state’s athletic teams if the bill becomes law. They say that colleges in California could be prohibited from competing for N.C.A.A. championships because they would have an unfair recruiting advantage — being able to lure athletes with the possibility of cashing in on anything from jersey sales to sponsorship deals.
“It’s like you and I sit down to play Monopoly and I pull out a different rule book and every time I pass Go, I’m going to give myself $400 instead of $200,” said Andy Fee, the athletic director at Long Beach State. “I don’t imagine too many people are going to be willing to allow California schools to compete for N.C.A.A. championships.”
Though Long Beach State has dropped its football program and isn’t a threat to reach the Final Four in basketball, the school does harbor championship ambitions in some sports. It is coming off back-to-back national titles in men’s volleyball.
“That’s not a high-revenue sport, but in this community, it’s a big deal,” Fee said. “What am I going to do, walk into their locker room and say, ‘Hey, you’re the best team in the country and now you’re not going to play for a championship’?”
The bill could produce other complications, according to its opponents.
What if a quarterback reaches a marketing agreement with a casino? Or a basketball star has a deal to promote a marijuana dispensary when cannabinoids are on the N.C.A.A.’s list of banned substances? What about international students, whose F-1 visas largely restrict them from off-campus employment?
In his letter, Emmert pointed out the difficulties of untangling such thorny questions and asked legislators to table the bill until October, when an N.C.A.A. committee studying name, image and likeness issues is supposed to be complete its report.
Skinner, though, waved away a plea for more time.
“Been there, done that,” she said, noting that the N.C.A.A. formed its panel after the bill began working its way through the legislature in April. “You had your opportunity.”
That is why, she said, the bill would not go into effect for more than three years — enough time to account for any unintended consequences.
Skinner expects opponents to mount court challenges during that time, but she also anticipates a growing corps of allies.
Similar bills are in their infancy in state legislatures in Washington and Colorado, and United States Representative Mark Walker, Republican of North Carolina, introduced a federal bill this year that would allow college athletes to be compensated for the use of their name, image and likeness.
Skinner sees her bill as a catalyst rather than an end unto itself.
As she sat in her office at the State Capitol last week, Skinner reflected on her days as a graduate student listening to Harry Edwards, the sociologist who has advised many athletes on social activism and who helped inspire Tommie Smith and John Carlos, the American Olympians who raised gloved fists on the medals stand at the Mexico City Games in 1968 to call attention to racial injustice.
Skinner has framed the current debate as a replay of her first political fight — organizing her fellow teacher’s assistants for the right to be treated as employees, with pay and health benefits.
In this case, she believes that an athlete should be treated like any other student with a marketable skill. An engineering undergraduate who creates a robot and a music student with a chance to work as a club D.J. would have no limits on what they could earn for their efforts, except what others were willing to pay.
“For me, it’s a combination of first starting out as a civil rights issue and then, wait a minute: This is like flat-out exploitation of any student,” Skinner said. “I don’t know of any other industry that can rely on a large set of people’s talent for which they deny them any earnings and all compensation.”
Alan Blinder contributed reporting from Atlanta.