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Volume 23 No. 24
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Governor draws on his experience as student athlete

For California Gov. Gavin Newsom, the fight for student-athlete rights is personal. 

 

Newsom, who signed California’s Fair Pay to Play Act on LeBron James’ HBO show and has been an outspoken advocate for student-athlete rights, was a student athlete himself. 

In fact, Newsom said the experience changed his life. “The only reason I am governor of California, the only reason you are talking to me right now, is because of baseball,” Newsom said. “The only reason I got into college is baseball.” 

Newsom suffered from the learning disability dyslexia and struggled academically. But he got accepted to Santa Clara  University on a partial baseball scholarship. Newsom played first base at Santa Clara in the 1980s while pursuing a degree in political science.

“Gavin was a great player,” said Doug Hendrickson, an NFL agent at Wasserman who is a close friend of Newsom’s. “He had a great swing, was a great defensive player and was a very good college baseball player.” 

Hendrickson would know. He was a right-handed pitcher at San Jose State at the same time Newsom played at Santa Clara, which is less than 10 miles away. The two Northern California teams played each other frequently, especially during fall baseball. 

“I would compare him to Will Clark,” Hendrickson said, referring to the former Major League Baseball first baseman and two-time all star, who now works in the San Francisco Giants front office. “He was very smooth, had power, could hit for average. He could do it all. Very, very gifted swing.”

Newsom wanted to play in MLB, but it was not to be, as he suffered an injury to his ulnar nerve that required surgery and ended his playing career. He graduated with a degree in political science, and now in his political career has been speaking out on student-athlete rights, including signing the first bill into law. 

Newsom said being a student athlete was a full-time job. “Academics came fourth or fifth, it didn’t come second or third,” he said. “The experience I had only reinforced the importance of this law. It wasn’t an intellectual exercise for me. I didn’t need someone to explain the way it works because I experienced the way it works firsthand.”

California Gov. Gavin Newsom played baseball at Santa Clara University.
Photo: Getty Images
California Gov. Gavin Newsom played baseball at Santa Clara University.
Photo: Getty Images
California Gov. Gavin Newsom played baseball at Santa Clara University.
Photo: Getty Images

Since Newsom signed the California bill into law on Sept. 30, there have been 18 bills in other states and two federal bills proposed that would also allow student athletes to have the right to sell their name, image and likeness while in school. Of those, six are sponsored or co-sponsored by student-athletes-turned-politicians on both sides of the aisle. 

They include three Democrats: Nevada Assemblyman Jason Frierson, who played football at the University of Nevada; Michigan state Rep. Joe Tate, who played football at Michigan; and Illinois state Rep. Chris Welch, who played baseball at Northwestern.

They also include three Republicans. U.S. Rep. Anthony Gonzalez (R-Ohio), who played wide receiver at Ohio State and was a first-round 2007 NFL draft pick who played for the Colts, has said he would propose a bill in Congress similar to California’s. Other Republicans who were student athletes who support legislation include Michigan state Rep. Brandt Iden, who played tennis at Kalamazoo, and New Mexico state Sen. Mark Moores, who played football at New Mexico.

Newsom isn’t the only former college-baseball-player-turned-governor who supports the cause. Florida’s Ron DeSantis, a Republican who played at Yale, said this fall that he supports two bills in the state legislature that would allow student athletes to get paid for their names and likeness.

Newsom, a Democrat, has received some criticism for his outspokenness on the issue. In October, Gonzaga men’s basketball coach Mark Few told the media that the California governor “should probably stay in his lane” when it came to the issue of student athletes. 

Newsom was lieutenant governor for eight years, prior to becoming governor in January. As governor, he sits on the boards of both the University of California and the California State University school systems.  

“We approve the athletic contracts,” Newsom said of the two state college system boards. “We approve the college coaching contracts and so it is part of our job.

“I heard the coach, I think he said, ‘The governor of California should stay in his lane,’ and I agree I should stay in my lane,” Newsom said. “He was right.”

Staff writer Bret McCormick contributed to this report.

Liz Mullen can be reached at lmullen@sportsbusinessjournal.com. Follow her on Twitter @SBJLizMullen.