Florida Legislature fixes college athletes’ compensation fumble in final minutes of session

©Miami Herald

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — After a mad legislative scramble, Florida college athletes may be able to profit off their name, image and likeness this summer after all.

That’s because Republican lawmakers spent the last day of the 60-day legislative session using procedural maneuvers to undo legislation that if signed, would have delayed by one year when college athletes can get paid for things like autographs, commercials and social media posts.

The end result was a hastily put together bill that keeps July 1, 2021, as the effective date of the name, image and likeness law, and incorporates language that says state universities and colleges can’t use state funds to pay for associations that boycott the state.

The last-minute moves came after the Republican-led Legislature faced backlash from Florida’s top coaches and star quarterbacks for postponing the law, and a looming boycott threat from the NCAA over legislation that bans transgender athletes from competing in girls’ and women’s sports in high school and college.

“If the NCAA wants to boycott this state, all we are saying is that if you are the University of Florida or FSU that you would just have to use privately raised dollars to continue to be a member of that organization,” said Rep. Jay Trumbull, a Panama City Republican who sponsored the boycott language.

Republican lawmakers were forced to make the changes to spare Gov. Ron DeSantis heartburn. That’s because on Wednesday they sent the governor legislation that included both the delay for the college athletes law and banned transgender females from competing in girls’ and women’s sports.

So, without the fixes, DeSantis would have been forced to sign into law one of his priorities, while killing another one. The governor on Thursday night announced on Fox News he intends to sign the transgender athlete ban into law.

Democrats were already using it to attack DeSantis, who is positioning himself for reelection in 2022, saying he cared more about “humiliating transgender children than getting college athletes paid.”

Republican lawmakers, meanwhile, were feeling heat from prominent figures in Florida athletics. Head coaches at the University of Florida, Florida State University and the University of Miami and two star quarterbacks — FSU’s McKenzie Milton and Miami’s D’Eriq King — all publicly criticized the delay of the name, image and likeness law on Twitter. So legislators acted quickly with the clock running out on session, and all the while denying that the social-media response had anything to do with their last-minute amendment.

Members of the House and Senate both referenced tweets from Florida State quarterback McKenzie Milton during discussion. Milton and King were among the high-profile players and coaches who spoke out Thursday in opposition to the delay.

Friday afternoon, Milton tweeted again: “Thank you for the hard work over the last 48 hours to GET THIS RIGHT!!”

Milton and King were among the athletes with the most to lose from the delay. Both are near the end of their collegiate eligibility, and neither one is regarded as an elite professional prospect.

“Why do some voices matter more to you than others? Why did the messages from trans kids and their parents not even move you but 24 hours of tweets and articles on Sports Illustrated did? Think about that,” said Rep. Anna Eskamani, D-Orlando.

Sen. Travis Hutson, a St. Augustine Republican who initially authored the delay, had told Sports Illustrated that the delay was needed because lawmakers were concerned the NCAA could punish Florida athletes for using a state law that, in some cases, differs from impending NCAA rules.

By Friday, Hutson had had a change of heart. He told senators that he talked to FSU President John Thrasher and NCAA President Mark Emmert, and that he was assured the NCAA “does not want to punish players on their name, image and likeness and wants to protect players.”

“So after having those conversations, I have filed this amendment to move it back to the original effective date, and our players can now profit off their name, image and likeness at the original date that we passed from last session,” he said.

The Senate approved the change and sent it to the House for approval. Once in the House, the politically-tinged issue became even more political.

There, Trumbull successfully attached an amendment that says state universities can’t use public funds to pay for membership, like the NCAA, if they boycott the state.

The push came a few weeks after the NCAA threatened to move championship events out of states that discriminate against LGBTQ people. The warning was directed at laws like the one passed by the Republican-led Legislature on Wednesday.

If the NCAA moved to boycott the state, dozens of events could be at risk. For example, the football playoff semifinals are scheduled at Hard Rock Stadium this year and in 2024, and the women’s basketball Final Four is scheduled for Tampa in 2025.

“We are not telling anybody that they cannot boycott in this amendment,” Trumbull said. “But if the NCAA wants to boycott this state all we are saying is that if you are the University of Florida or FSU that you would just use privately raised dollars to continue to be a member of that organization.”

The amendment, however, appears to be just a message. And in practice, it does nothing. The state university system’s Board of Governors says athletics are funded by ticket sales to sporting events, NCAA distributions, sponsorships and private support — not state funds.

Hutson told senators the House amendment would do “absolutely nothing.”

“If the NCAA were to pull out of the state of Florida, this would do absolutely nothing to our colleges and universities,” Hutson said.

Senate and House Democrats criticized Republicans for trying to pass legislation to “send a message to the NCAA” and said DeSantis would be to blame if the state loses money as a result of a boycott.

“This is the governor firing a shot back. The NCAA has clearly said that if we pass this transgender ban, if it goes into law, they are not going to sanction our tournaments,” Sen. Gary Farmer, D-Lighthouse Point, said.

Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, D-Orlando, an ardent opponent of the transgender athlete ban, agreed.

“Members, you created this chaos with your frightening obsession with trans girls who just want to be included, who just want to play and who just want to be left the hell alone,” Smith said.