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Cory Booker to propose national expansion of California law allowing college athletes to take sponsorships

Democratic presidential candidate Cory Booker will unveil a plan Thursday aimed at tackling the “exploitation” of college and professional athletes, including a proposal for national adoption of a California law allowing college athletes to profit from sponsorships and other opportunities related to their personal brand.

Booker’s plan also calls for an “Athletics Fair Pay Act” to ensure equal pay for professional women athletes and stronger federal requirements for colleges receiving Title IX funding to support women’s and men’s sports equally.

“The systemic problems in sports are issues of economic justice and fairness,” Booker said in a statement. “For too long, we have allowed exploitative practices in professional and college sports to fester — somehow treating sports as different than our broader economy.

“But sports at these levels is a multi-billion dollar business,” Booker continued. “Just as we shouldn’t accept collusion, wage theft, and a massive gender pay gap in any other industry, we shouldn’t accept them in sports.”

The wide-reaching proposal would target issues as seemingly disparate as pay for minor league baseball players and labor policies impacting NFL cheerleaders and NBA dancers. Booker’s plan would establish a federal Commission on Integrity in Sports to continually conduct oversight of sports at all levels. And his proposal would require that colleges foot the bill for all medical expenses related to injuries incurred by student athletes, up to 10 years after they are no longer eligible to play.

But the common theme, Booker notes, is ensuring “that all athletes have the opportunity to pursue the American dream through their hard work, and fans can share in the joy of fair competition.”

Booker stands apart as the only 2020 presidential candidate who played college sports, having played college football for Stanford University. On the campaign trail, Booker often jokes that he attended Stanford thanks to his 4.0 and 1600: 4.0 average yards per carry, and 1,600 receiving yards, that is.

While Booker might have the most personal connection to sports issues among the 2020 field, he is not the only one using his platform to speak out. Sen. Bernie Sanders and businessman Andrew Yang, for example, have both endorsed college athletes being paid — an idea that goes beyond what Booker proposes in his new plan.

However, Booker earns the distinction of being the first 2020 presidential candidate to roll out a comprehensive policy plan around college and professional sports, bringing to the fore a set of issues that have only recently started to draw national attention.

“Certainly Congress has been reluctant to challenge the status quo in athletics over the years,” said Charles Clotfelter, a public policy professor at Duke University, and author of the book, “Big-Time Sports in American Universities.”

Booker has been one voice who’s long calling for a shakeup. In a 2014 Senate hearing, the New Jersey Democrat grilled NCAA President Mark Emmert over issues ranging from “inadequate” health coverage for athletes to scholarships that don’t ensure they can graduate with a bachelor’s degree.

“This was a challenge when I was an athlete some 20 years ago,” Booker said during that hearing, “and athletes after athletes are going through and facing what I consider the exploitation of athletes.”

But outside pressure has recently begun building for reform, in both college and professional sports.

One of the problems Booker’s plan highlights — equal pay for female athletes — came into the spotlight earlier this year when the members of the World Cup champion US women’s soccer team objected to their pay gap versus the men’s national team. Those women are now suing the US Soccer Federation over gender pay discrimination.

Meanwhile, the debate over whether college athletes should be able to profit from sponsorships and other money-making opportunities ratcheted up when California approved a law to allow the practice. The law is not set to take effect until 2023, but it has been strongly opposed by the NCAA, which oversees college sports — even as LeBron James and other athletes and public figures applauded the change.

The NCAA is feeling the heat “from all angles,” said Gabe Feldman, director of the sports law program at Tulane University — including in other state legislatures, Congress, the courts and now on the 2020 campaign trail. Altogether, “there is now unprecedented pressure on the NCAA to reform.”

“The pressure from Sen. Booker and other senators and members of Congress is a positive step,” Feldman added. “The hope is that all of these forces of pressure will move the NCAA to make meaningful change.”

On Capitol Hill, Republican Rep. Mark Walker of North Carolina has also been applying pressure, introducing a bill earlier this year with Democratic Rep. Cedric Richmond that would allow college athletes across the country — not just in certain states — to earn money from sponsorships and the use of their likeness, similar to Booker’s proposal.

“You can’t successfully resolve this on a state-by-state basis,” said Walker, even as he offered “kudos” to California for its law. “This has to be resolved from a federal standpoint.”

The idea has attracted bipartisan support, Walker said, because “it’s a simple civil rights issue,” disproportionately affecting students who hail from lower-income communities.

“Sports issues don’t necessarily fall neatly across traditional political lines,” Feldman echoed. “Sports is one of the only truly unifying things in this country, and this exemplifies that.”

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