Pay for play? Iowa lawmakers propose college athletes be paid

Republican and Democrat pattern idea off California law

Iowa State Cyclones linebackers Mike Rose (23), O'Rien Vance (34) and Marcel Spears Jr. (42) tackle Iowa Hawkeyes runnin
Iowa State Cyclones linebackers Mike Rose (23), O’Rien Vance (34) and Marcel Spears Jr. (42) tackle Iowa Hawkeyes running back Mekhi Sargent (10) for a third down stop during the first quarter of their college football game at Jack Trice Stadium in Ames, Iowa on Saturday, Sept. 14, 2019. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

Joe Mitchell was watching Thursday Night Football when one of his buddies asked him if he thought college athletes should be paid.

“He’s not a political guy, but thought it was the right thing,” said Mitchell, a Republican state representative from Mount Pleasant. “I looked into it. It made sense. Why shouldn’t they be able to get paid?”

Such action by the California Legislature caused Rep. Ras Smith, a Waterloo Democrat who had a brief collegiate athletic career, to ask the same question. Allowing student-athletes to be paid seemed fair.

He thought about David Johnson, a Pro Bowl running back with the Arizona Cardinals who played at the University of Northern Iowa while Smith was getting his graduate degree. If he had been able to sign autographs for a fee at a local car dealership, for example, Johnson might not have had to call home as often as he did to ask for money to cover his meals, Smith said.

“I can’t say that we’ll have a lot of people in our sports programs getting rich off this, but maybe they won’t eat Ramen as much,” Smith said, referring to the iconic low-cost noodles. “We’re not talking hundreds of thousands of dollars, but we’ll have some students who can pay off their loans and spend more time on their academics because they aren’t trying to be a full-time student-athlete and work a job in the offseason.”

So independent of each other, Smith and Mitchell asked the Iowa Legislative Services Agency to draft a bill modeled on one signed into law earlier this fall in California.

California’s law, scheduled to go into effect in 2023, would end the traditional practice of student-athletes being compensated with an education rather than a salary. It would allow college athletes to hire agents and get paid for the use of their names, likenesses and images. Under the measure, individual schools and the National Collegiate Athletic Association would not be able to ban students from earning the compensation.


Colleges and the NCAA have opposed allowing student-athletes to be paid. Their argument is that in exchange for their performances, the athletes get scholarships, coaching and academic help.

The argument in California and elsewhere is whether the 460,000 students competing at the collegiate level, who face increasing demands on their time and bodies, should share in the revenue from TV contracts, ticket sales and other sources that have made college athletics a $14 billion a year industry.

Although both are in their first full term, Mitchell and Smith have spent enough time in the Legislature to know their bills probably won’t sail through the chambers.

“It’s about exploring,” Smith said. “It may be a heavy lift, a three-year lift, but we want to broach the topic.”

Mitchell expects the California law to generate discussions at Statehouses across the country and he wants Iowa to be at the forefront.

“We don’t want Iowa to be last to the party,” Smith said.

Mitchell and Smith have been texting back-and-forth with House State Government Committee Chairman Bobby Kaufmann, R-Wilton. They believe their bills will get a hearing when the Legislature convenes in January.

Mitchell foresees a generational difference in attitudes toward his proposal to pay college athletes.

“For my generation, I think it’s one of those issues that we say, ‘Yeah, why can’t they get paid?’” Mitchell, 22, said. It might make lawmakers comfortable with the traditional arrangement “uneasy.”


Mitchell hasn’t talked to the universities or members of the Iowa Board of Regents. Until specific legislation in introduced, the board and university officials are staying mostly silent.

“We want to see the language of the proposed legislation before we comment,” said Josh Lehmann, spokesman for the Board of Regents.

Iowa State University Athletics Director Jamie Pollard declined to comment. His University of Iowa counterpart, Gary Barta, did not respond to questions from The Gazette.

UNI Deputy Athletics Director Justin Schemmel is aware of the debate going on in athletics departments and legislatures. He’s not endorsing any of the measures being considered, but acknowledges, “Change is inevitable.”

“What you want to make sure is that everyone is operating under the same set of rules,” he said.

For that reason, Schemmel would prefer that if there is a change it be led at a national level, probably by the NCAA, so that there are no conflicts between states and athletic conferences.

Neither Mitchell nor Smith are predicting that many Iowa athletes would be getting rich on endorsement deals. However, they think there is a market for athletes to share in the riches.

“If we’re talking about the market being there, financially, it definitely is,” Smith said. “Besides the NFL, what other sports entity has as much control and revenue as the NCAA?”


Allowing student-athletes to be paid “has the potential to remove a burden that a lot of people who have never been a student-athlete don’t understand,” said Smith, who played a year of football at Wartburg College before trying to walk on at ISU. “My jersey stayed pretty clean.”

People assume that an athlete getting a scholarship to defray expenses is getting a good deal when he or she collects a diploma, Smith said.

“They may not understand what it’s like to get up at 4:45 for a 5:30 workout, have your classes over before 1 so you can get to practice from 2 until 5:30, have dinner, get to the study table and do homework until 11 o’clock and then get up and do it all over again,” he said. “And you have to have your coursework done before you get on that airplane Thursday.

“If you’ve never lived that, you might not know what they went through Monday through Friday to be on the field Saturday,” he said.

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