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Former NCAA Athlete Fights For College Players To Profit From Own Names

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Big changes are coming for college athletics. This week, the NCAA is expected to vote on new rules for how athletes may profit from their own name, image and likeness. Although critics have called for these changes for years, recently the debate has shifted from whether athletes should get these rights to when. And that when is fast approaching. On July 1, laws go into effect in six states, allowing college athletes to sign endorsements and promote themselves in anything from paid social media posts to private lessons. Many more states are reviewing legislation that will take effect down the road. Federal lawmakers have also been looking into the issue. And this past week, the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation heard from the athletes themselves.

Christina Chenault was one of them. She was a heptathlete on the UCLA track and field team for the last six years. She just finished her final season and graduated with her master's degree. And on Thursday, she testified before the Senate committee. Christina Chenault, thank you so much for being with us.

CHRISTINA CHENAULT: Thank you so much for having me, Michel.

MARTIN: So let me just start with when you started thinking about this because I could imagine that joining a Division I program like UCLA has to be so exciting - right? - that I'm imagining that you're probably not thinking about that at the time. So what made you start thinking about it?

CHENAULT: Yeah, so you're absolutely right. I think when you first enter college sports, you're not really thinking about all the rights that are deprived from you right away. So it really wasn't until - after my first year, I started to quickly notice how there were a lot of things athletes couldn't do. There were a lot of misconceptions and glamorization about what it was actually like being an athlete. And so after my first year, me and actually one of my teammates decided to create a sports media platform. Part of that was because we wanted to create another creative outlet for ourselves. We also wanted to tell stories of fellow athletes, and we also were struggling to find different internship opportunities that weren't really presented to athletes as often as regular students. So we decided to become entrepreneurs. And with that platform, we quickly realized, since it was kind of almost a business in its own right, we were so limited in the things that we were able to do. We didn't have any rights to our name, image and likeness. We weren't able to monetize it, to bring any revenue to really support it. So that's when it became super-apparent to me, was when we created our first sports media platform.

MARTIN: So let me just sort of take a step back here and say the argument for years has been that the reason that NCAA athletes shouldn't be compensated is that they are already being compensated with their education. What I think I hear you saying is that in a big-name program like that, the athletics come first. Like, there's classes you can't take. There are internship opportunities you can't do. So talk a little bit more about that.

CHENAULT: Right. So I realized instantly as a freshman, as I think a lot of athletes realize once they get to college campus, that everything revolves around your athletic schedule. So that gets put in place, and then you can kind of try to create educational opportunities depending around that. So that naturally limits athletes into usually one to three majors. And they're usually just the majors that are easier to be able to manage with your athletic schedule. So that already in itself, that educational tradeoff that the NCAA claims, is just simply not true.

MARTIN: I think the argument that some people would make, though, is why not - and forgive me. I don't mean to be insensitive, but why not just quit? I mean, if you'd rather participate full time in the sport and monetize that ability, why not just do that? Like, people do do that. I'm thinking like, you know, Tiger Woods left Stanford to join the professional circuit, played professionally full time. So the question I think some people would have is, why not just turn pro?

CHENAULT: Yeah. I think - I mean, the first thing is I don't think you should have to choose between your education or whether you want to continue to compete as an athlete and get the rights that you deserve to have. For my scenario, being a track athlete, female athlete, there isn't a professional track American league. That becomes very limiting just because then those four years of your college experience - or six for me - that becomes your peak window of opportunity to be able to capitalize off your name, image and likeness with your status as an athlete.

So I think when you look at it from a broad scale, you start to realize that, yeah, the system is very much so built on inequity. At this point, college sports has become a multibillion dollar business. If it hadn't become this big, I don't think this conversation would be happening. But I think because that's happening and because the employees, the unpaid workers, are the athletes, it's just not fair.

MARTIN: Well, first of all, congratulations on your master's and...

CHENAULT: Thank you.

MARTIN: ...Finishing both your education and your career. I have two questions for you. If you had to do it over again, do you still think you would play college sports at this level? And if you had kids, what do you think you would let them do?

CHENAULT: Yeah. You know, I'm a big believer that everything happens for a reason. I think my experience shaped me for who I am. I wouldn't want to relive, I think, all of the experiences that I feel like I had to endure. But I do feel like in some ways, just making it through all six years, not having to medically retire, I take that almost as, like, a privilege.

When it comes to would I have, like, my kids or, like, someone else go through college athletics in the state that it is today, I don't think I would. And that's really hard to say because I think sport brings so many benefits to the world. And it's very unfortunate that the structure of the NCAA right now entirely takes advantage and exploits the athletes, I think, from the educational, physical and financial way. And that's kind of why, you know, I fight so hard right now for this system to change and to become more equitable and to become safer for the future generations.

MARTIN: That was Christina Chenault, a former UCLA track and field athlete. She testified last week before a Senate committee on the issue of college athletes profiting from their own name, image and likeness. Christina Chenault, thank you so much for joining us.

CHENAULT: Yes. Thank you so much, Michel, for the opportunity.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.