California’s legislature is forcing the NCAA to finally address the sham that is amateur college sports.

For too long, athletes have been forced to adhere to an artificial status as amateurs while their performances earn billions for their universities, often while supporting the six-and seven-figure salaries of their coaches.

College athletics have all the trappings of their professional counterparts, with high-dollar endorsement deals and the significant risk that a devastating injury could end a promising athletic career in the blink of an eye.

But there’s a huge difference: Professional players receive multimillion-dollar compensation that, if managed correctly, can set them up for life regardless of whatever misfortunes arise. For amateurs, the risk is all theirs. And the profits are for everyone else but them.

In California, lawmakers have decided enough’s enough. Spurred largely by a former college athlete, Democratic state Sen. Nancy Skinner, both houses of the legislature have approved the Fair Pay to Play Act, which would open the door for athletes competing under the amateur banner to collect fair compensation for certain services or for the use of their names, images and likenesses.

Under current rules, colleges are allowed to market the images of their athletes in commercial endorsement deals and other moneymaking enterprises.

The athletes themselves, no matter how famous, don’t collect a dime from whatever photos, videos, autographs or other memorabilia are sold to capitalize on their fame and talents.

The rules don’t even allow athletes to earn money by, say, going back to their high schools and conducting sports clinics for aspiring youths.

Unsurprisingly, the National Collegiate Athletic Association hates this legislation. In a letter urging Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom to veto, the NCAA said, “If the bill becomes law and California’s 58 NCAA schools are compelled to allow an unrestricted name, image and likeness scheme, it would erase the critical distinction between college and professional athletics and, because it gives those schools an unfair recruiting advantage,” disqualify them from NCAA competitions.

Left unsaid is the NCAA’s far bigger fear: That other states could rush to follow California’s lead and destroy the cash cow that universities have enjoyed for decades at the physical, emotional and financial expense of their athletes.

As long as all universities adhered to this unfair, monopolistic structure, the marketing largesse earned by their athletes wasn’t seriously threatened. Those days might be over.

Basketball star LeBron James is leading the chorus of professional athletes supporting this bill.

“This law is a GAMECHANGER,” he tweeted. “College athletes can responsibly get paid for what they do and the billions they create.”

It’s time for universities to end an exploitative system in which everyone wins but the athletes themselves. California lawmakers are correct to force the NCAA off the dime — and dollar.

Copyright St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Reprinted with permission.

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