Looking at North Carolina and UNC’s relationship with California’s Fair Pay to Play Act

I don’t think Roy Williams surprised anybody with his comments at the ACC Media Day on California’s newly-passed Fair Pay to Play Act, which will allow student-athletes in the state to profit from their likenesses starting in 2023:

I’ve never been one to say, “Yes, I’m for paying players,” but… when Peyton Manning was at Tennessee, first game, they sold… 50,000 jerseys, at $76 a jersey, and Peyton Manning didn’t get one cent. And that’s not right. And that’s always been my feeling.

It’s a stance shared by many, though not as many as one might expect: That there is something intangible about the spirit of college sports that’s lost when student-athletes are paid as de facto employees for the services they provide, not to mention that such a practice would turn big-market sports into professional free agency and ignores small-market sports that might not turn the same kind of profits even at big sports schools; and yet it feels wrong that schools and coaches can monetize their student-athletes’ talents, visibility, and labor while the student-athletes themselves can’t.

Walker Miller put it succinctly at Media Day:

“That does kind of suck for [Cole Anthony],” Miller said. “Some people are going to profit off what he does on the court, and he should probably get some of that.”

North Carolina is relatively early to the discussion surrounding the recently passed California law. All the way back in March, state rep Mark Walker proposed legislation that would protect athletes performing under amateur sports organizations from losing amateur status for using their name, image, and likeness as they wanted. It didn’t move much at the time, though Walker says he’s seen renewed interest from his fellow legislators due to the buzz of the FPTP bill. And North Carolina isn’t alone, either: lawmakers in Ohio, South Carolina, Illinois, Colorado, Florida, Minnesota, Kentucky, Nevada, New York, and Pennsylvania have either publicly called for or introduced legislation that mimics the FPTP law and would allow athletes to maintain amateur status while profiting from their likeness. Just like with the last stages of amateurism in the Olympics before that collapsed completely, what we’re thinking of as the old model of college athletics is eroding for the benefit of student-athletes, and UNC, as home to one of the most visible college athletic programs in the country, has been pretty close to this discussion for the last decade, as it’s really picked up steam in the public.

The most immediate thing, of course, is the college basketball corruption “scandal” that we’re all still waiting to see figured out. This isn’t exactly the place to recap all that, but I do want y’all to remember exactly how much UNC press cared about this stuff, which is exactly not at all. Roy Williams is dead serious when he says that he’s not a believer in paying players, and that’s including to get a competitive advantage. And we saw that attitude and culture reflected in a player last year, too, when it turned out that Nassir Little and his family essentially dumped Arizona as soon as he heard a whisper of their planning to offer him money to attend. Little would say at a high school All-Star game that he doesn’t actually have a problem with the one-and-done model of the NBA that forces talented players to wait a year before monetizing their talents, and then reiterate his stance after a perceivedly disappointing year in college – he didn’t regret his year as an athlete of the NCAA even though it lost him money both in terms of the year he spent not getting paid and as a contributor to the drop he saw in his draft position. As UNC’s only player this decade who was considered a one-and-done player from recruitment to when he actually declared for the draft (will Cole Anthony count if/when he’s drafted in 2020?), that’s an important detail in how we talk about UNC related to player payment. Just like Roy Williams, it seems like the people who go through the program, even those expecting to stay just a year, have some sort of respect for the college game.

But conversations around the program also make it clear that something needs to change, and that’s not a conversation that’s been shied away from. This wasn’t the first time Roy Williams has brought up that Peyton Manning example. Most memorable, though, at least to me, was an exchange with Marcus Paige during the 2016 NCAA Tournament, though I think the video’s been lost. It’s the one where Paige talks about that famous Kenpom article that argues that three-point defense is a myth and all you can really do is limit attempts, which is the part that got the press. At the end, a reporter asked him if he had a Kenpom subscription, and he said something like “Of course not! 30 dollars? That’s like 3 meals! Y’all remember Shabazz Napier? He wasn’t lying…” Napier, if you remember that long ago, made some waves by saying that there were a lot of nights during his college career that he went to bed hungry, having been unable to afford dinner. A 2013 study backed this up, saying that 86% of student athletes live lifestyles at or below the poverty line. And I can’t go farther without mentioning that Roy Williams listens to his players, even on issues where his heart is set against where they might be. In the immediate aftermath of Colin Kaepernick’s kneeling, while he was trying to figure out his feelings of conflict between his own patriotism and recognition that we live in a flawed nation, he asked his players for their input on what he was feeling and if his conflict made them uncomfortable, and eventually reconsidered to the point of being fully on the side of protest. Whatever you get from the statement that he’s “never been one to say ‘yes, we should pay players,’” Roy Williams is undeniably pro-player.

For my last bit of relationality, I’m moving to a little more of a touchy topic, back to the year 2013, when I entered college and UNC basketball had two players suspended, one for almost the whole non-conference season and one indefinitely, for receiving what the NCAA determined to be impermissible benefits. Leslie McDonald drove an expensive rental car he hadn’t paid for, had a custom mouthguard, and got some temporary lodging, and P.J. Hairston got what seemed to be extensive use of rental cars that had been rented by somebody else. So that’s inching onto what a lot of folks have pointed to as the shadier side of laws like the FPTP Act, getting boosters and unlicensed individuals to pay for athletes’ stuff in return for attending certain schools. And sure, that doesn’t have the same feel-good energy as players profiting from sales of their jerseys, but the punishment didn’t seem to fit the transgression. National writers, broadcasters, and students united behind the sentiment of #FreePJ, because being barred from college basketball for driving some cars seemed disproportionate. And we know that John Henson, at that point a pro, agreed. Remember this shirt?

We’ll see what happens with this policy at the national level and what happens with the NC bill that was proposed in March as a progenitor to this discussion. I’m confident in saying we’re going to see the end of the current amateurism model in the next 10 years, and that UNC is going to be near the center of it, in basketball and other sports, in its typically pro-player way. I don’t think there’s anything in the above that indicates that UNC is against the side of progress, and that’s pretty cool. After all, we could have Mark Few instead.

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Akil Guruparan