By WILL WHATLEY, Alabama Daily News
MONTGOMERY, Ala. – When Robert Johnson graduated in 1999 from Montgomery’s Jefferson Davis High School, he was the top-rated tight end prospect in the state. But, like many top prospects, even before he stepped on a college campus, his sights were set on professional football.
“I knew I only needed to be out of high school for three years before I could go pro,” said Johnson, who spent one year at military school before enrolling at Auburn. “It didn’t matter if I signed for $60,000, we needed the money. It was a plain struggle.”
Johnson went on to set the record for most touchdown receptions by an Auburn tight end despite playing with a broken wrist. After two seasons on the Plains, Johnson bypassed his senior season and declared for the 2003 NFL Draft.
“Colleges didn’t want you to come out early then,” he said. “I love Auburn to the core but I needed the money for my family. If there’d been some sort of compensation, I would’ve stayed for my senior season. It was strictly a business decision for my family and me.”
College football is serious business here in ruby-red Alabama, but it’s left-coast California that’s pushing the competitive edge when it comes to college sports.
On Sept. 30, the legislature of America’s most-populated state passed a bill that would enable college athletes to be compensated for use of their image or likeness. Responding to the actions taken by California’s state legislature, the NCAA Board of Governors on Oct. 29 unanimously approved a measure that would allow student-athletes to “benefit from the use of their name, image and likeness.” The board asked each of the associations’s three divisions to make rules changes no later than January 2021, according to media reports.
The NCAA’s decision was borne not solely on the legislation passed in California. Similar legislation is under consideration by state legislatures in Florida, Maryland, Minnesota, New York, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee and Washington.
College sports are big business in states like Alabama where professional sports teams are few and far between.
While Alabama House Rep. Kyle South, R-Fayette, doesn’t like the decision made by the NCAA Board of Governors, he recognizes action needs to be taken so that a uniform rule can apply to all member institutions.
“I don’t really support it but think the state needs to be prepared in the case that the NCAA does change their by-laws,” South said. “Our amateur laws would put state law in direct conflict with NCAA rules. My fear is that this will be used against state institutions in recruiting if we don’t make some changes to current statute.”
Rep. Jeremy Gray, D-Opelika. is a proponent of paying student-athletes in some form.
“I don’t know what the formula is but I support some form of compensation,” Gray said. “Whether that’s licensing their image or receiving a stipend, I think the essence of an athlete getting paid is okay.”
Gray believes there should be some form of compensation but doesn’t champion one form over another.
Gray, who played cornerback from 2004 to 2008 for North Carolina State where he totaled 78 tackles and six interceptions, suggests those who don’t support paying players should look at what these student-athletes bring to a university.
“The universities knew athletics would generate money and they have a lot of kids from impoverished backgrounds playing these sports,” he said. “It’s all about money so let’s share it with the players.”
In 2018, the NCAA had about $930 million in revenue from the three weeks of March Madness, including media rights, tickets and corporate sponsors.
Gray added that many times, college athletics programs steer players to be more athlete than studen,t and that this focus needs to be recognized. According to Gray, some schools will steer certain players towards specific majors so the student-athlete can stay eligible to play or even maximize their time on the field and in the weight room.
Additionally, Gray noted that big-time college athletics impact more than just a university’s bottom line.
“A prime time to make money for our local businesses is during sporting events,” he said. “[Sporting events] have a great impact on the local economy. College athletics must evolve at some point because of the revenue it generates.”
In 2018, Alabama and Auburn combined to generate more than $324 million, according to CBS Sports.
Rep. Wes Allen, R-Troy, played wide receiver at the University of Alabama, where his position coach was current Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney. Swinney made waves in April 2019 by signing a 10-year, $93 million contract extension with Clemson, then said he would “go do something else” if college athletes were compensated.
When asked if he supported paying college athletes, Allen echoed his old college coach and stated he didn’t and that the government should stay out of the matter.
“It’s called amateur sports for a reason,” Allen said.
South said that while he doesn’t know of any specific legislation that could be proposed when the state legislature convenes in February, he does think it’s an issue that needs to be addressed soon.
“We will need to change our state amateur laws to make sure we aren’t at a disadvantage if the NCAA or the courts make a move in that direction,” he said. “Because if an amateur takes compensation they would be in violation of state law…the way I read the current statute.”