Selle: Taxpayers deserve fair share of state’s athletic treasure

Chicago Tribune Opinions 2 months ago

Problems facing Illinois keep spreading. We have a rising state pension crisis, a growing need for tax enhancements, deaths from vaping, and residents voting with their feet and leaving daily.

So what do our lawmakers decide is an overriding concern? Making sure collegiate athletes can profit and earn money for their images, names or likenesses.

When all else fails, bread and circuses always work. Roman consuls did the same as their sway was in its last gasp, turning increasingly to the city’s arenas to please a restive populace.

Illinois now pivots from being one of the highest-taxed states in the nation to wanting to be the second state to allow college and university players to get a piece of the multibillion-dollar collegiate athletic pie. The measure, filed late last month by state Rep. Emanuel Welch, D-Hillside, already has picked up substantial legislative support.

One of the co-sponsors of House Bill 3904 — the so-called “fair play” act — is freshman state Rep. Daniel Didech, D-Buffalo Grove, from the 59th House District. He joined the drive for collegiate pay equality on Oct. 2.

The bill Didech backs is similar to one signed into law Sept. 30 by California Gov. Gavin Newsom, which also allows the “student athlete” to sign with sports agents, like their coaches get to do. They cannot be removed from a team if they receive money.

Of course, the National Collegiate Athletic Association, which oversees some 1,200 colleges and their conferences, along with controlling what athletes can and cannot take part in, has threatened to sue California. We’ll see how that court scrimmage will play out down the road once the first college player decides to sign with a sports agent and make some amateur cash. The law takes effect in 2023.

The Illinois counterpart, if signed into law, would create the Student Athlete Endorsement Act. It stops any institution of higher learning in the state, conference or NCAA from preventing student athletes from earning compensation while being scholarship eligible, including yanking their athletic grants. The bill, like in California, would be effective in January 2023, and also sets forth provisions concerning professional representation and contracts.

Looking at a synopsis of the Welch proposal, players can get a share of the collegiate athletic largesse, but there’s nothing in it about taxpayers getting a share of the booty gained during the school-year seasons. Nothing about rationing out TV and radio payments, shoe and uniform income, T-shirt vending, ticket sales.

If the state is splitting costs, allowing athletes to get their share while on taxpayer-supported scholarships, using practice facilities and stadiums funded by tax money, being coached by adults whose paychecks are signed by a state official, then it’s only fair long-suffering Illinois taxpayers also get a portion, or at least a tax rebate. After all, most of the players who will be making the bucks will be from state-supported schools, although one doesn’t see big-name jocks this football season at the University of Illinois, Northern Illinois or Illinois State being sought out for endorsements.

That’s the rub with putting amateur athletes on par with professionals. The top teams nationwide are those of football and basketball, usually at state-supported institutions of higher learning.

There’s never a rush to purchase team merchandise to support the badminton, field hockey or bowling teams, or pay to attend the events. They are supported from the gates at “high-major” football and basketball state programs, whose elite players will be raking in the cash.

Besides taxpayers being ignored, so will athletes in lesser sports or in the mid-major and small-college ranks. Most Division III schools don’t even offer athletic scholarships; athletes play for the love of the game.

I may not root for the Illini, but I’ve written enough checks to the Illinois Department of Revenue every April supporting our academic institutions. If players get “fair pay for fair play," taxpayers deserve some yardage, too.

Charles Selle is a former News-Sun reporter, political editor and editor.

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