Calif. Gov. Gavin Newsom: 'I Would Not Be Sitting Here Without Baseball'

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California Gov. Gavin Newsom. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
California Gov. Gavin Newsom. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Maybe you’ve already heard the news. It came down a couple weeks ago.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a bill that will allow college athletes to profit from their name, image and likeness through endorsement deals. The "Fair Pay to Play Act" has seen support from lawmakers in other states, who say they're also pushing or planning to propose similar legislation. Many have also expressed opposition to the bill.

But maybe you didn’t hear this part: The man who signed the bill that just might lead to the dismantling of that cartel better known as the NCAA is a former scholarship athlete.

On the podcast "The Lead" from The Athletic, Newsom said, "It shaped me. I love sports. I don’t just like sports. I love sports. It’s the reason we’re having this conversation. It’s the reason I’m Governor of California."

California Gov. Gavin Newsom sat down with reporter Olivia Christian.

OC: Tell me about how baseball found you, or how you found baseball.

GN: I would not be sitting here without baseball. I was one of those kids that every single night my mom would have to turn off the radio because I was falling asleep — uh, forgive me, Dodger fans — but listening to the San Francisco Giants broadcast. I was obsessed with baseball.

Gavin Newsom’s obsession was mostly directed at a single player, a Bay Area hero from the "Humm Baby" era of the late '80s.

GN: I found these old VHS tapes — and no one will know who the heck this is — but Will Clark was one of my baseball heroes.

OC: No one's gonna know who that is? I mean, come on.

GN: I don't know. I mean, in some parts of the country. But Will Clark had one of the sweetest swings in baseball — just one of the purest swings. And I used to videotape every single at bat. Now this back when you couldn't fast forward or you couldn't — I mean it was like — and you know when like DVDs — this is old VHS. I have, like, three or four seasons of every single Will Clark at bat. That's how damn obsessed I was.

OC: Does Will Clark know you have these video of him?

GN: In fact, one of the great gifts was someone told Will Clark — I'm not making this up — about 90 days ago, three months ago, and Will sent me a selfie photo. And then they surprised me with a little video, which was very fun.

Newsom was a student of the game, but he really struggled at being a student in the classroom.

GN: I had a severe learning disability, dyslexia, and I grew up as the kid in the back of the classroom, my head down and had no confidence whatsoever, was struggling in school. But for some reason — maybe being a little taller, left-handed — I started excelling a little bit in baseball.

OC: Athletes, especially those that play team sports, often describe themselves as being shaped by their sport. They wouldn’t be the individual they are had they not played that game. In what way exactly has baseball shaped you as a person?

GN: Patience. Perspective. Setbacks. Triumphs. This was early in my baseball career. I was playing right field and anyone listening who knows sports knows what that means. So I was that kid. I played for Round Table Pizza, and that's not an ad — just a fact. A Guy, Maurice Bignon — I remember he struck me out three times and [I] was embarrassed, devastated, and I went home. I had a single mom raise me. I lost her to cancer almost 20 years ago now. She was, as a mother, devastated. So she brought me back to the field later that night, and she pitched to me over and over and over again. True story. This is — God is my witness. I played against that same team a few weeks later. Maurice Bignon pitched again. I hit a damn home run.

Newsom grew up playing baseball. (Courtesy: Gavin Newsom)
Newsom grew up playing baseball. (Courtesy Gavin Newsom)

I cannot tell you how that experience shaped my life, shaped my deep admiration, respect for my mother and what she was about. It shaped my ability to think about — you have tough times, you have setbacks and you're demoralized, and you can come back and try. But you've got to work hard. That's baseball. That's life.

By high school, the kid who had once sat in the back of the class with his head down, who had fallen asleep listening to Giants’ games, saw his passion and dedication to the sport begin to pay off.

GN: Some of the great moments in my life were meeting actual scouts from professional baseball teams, keeping their cards. I still have them. I have an old box with my name on it: Gavin's box. It was in my mom's storage, and it was the original cards and all the original letters that we got from college campuses. If I had five extra minutes, I'd be in the backyard shooting basketballs or throwing a ball against the wall. It was an extraordinary gift to be part of team sports.

Newsom was a left-handed pitcher who dreamed about playing the majors, but first came college.

GN: Would love to lie and say, "I was a Rhodes scholar, and, you know, got 18000 on my SATs." You don't even want to know what I got on my SATs.

OC: Everyone's gonna start googling what your SAT scores are.

GN: Oh no, trust me. It's distressing. I would not have gotten into Santa Clara University had it not been for a baseball scholarship. There was no way to do that academically. I was going to go to a junior college.

But the reality of playing baseball on this next level quickly set in.

GN: College sports took my love of baseball away. It was work. The requirement to do all the voluntary classes and then the workouts and then the weekends and then summer league and winter — it became a job almost. And, ultimately, I had an ulnar nerve issue and threw out my arm and had a surgery and really didn't come back. And then I had to make that tough choice of, "What the hell do I do with my life?" Because I was just so consumed by baseball.

Newsom said he felt like an impostor on campus. He believed he didn’t belong there if not for what he called the privilege of a pass that was baseball.  So he decided to spend a semester abroad.

GN: I went to Rome of all places and I came back to a completely different person. I mean, it was decompression for me and allowed me to think about a life outside of sports.

OC: When you left campus, when you walked off Santa Clara University steps, did you leave with that feeling of, 'I will need to change this,' or did this come about later on in your life?

GN: Came about later on. I mean, I've always focused on athletics.

After a few years in the wine business, Newsom was appointed to the Board of Supervisors in San Francisco, and after serving three terms he was elected mayor of the city in 2003 and again in 2007. He became California’s lieutenant governor in 2010 and was re-elected in 2014. And during all these years, while he was rising in politics, he met athletes who shared similar stories.

GN: You know, I'm a social justice warrior. That's been, like — if you ask me my "why," not just professionally but personally, it's to stand up for ideals and strike out against injustice. I'm kind of a Sarge[nt] Shriver Democrat. That’s how I was born and raised.

"I would not be sitting here without baseball."

Gov. Gavin Newsom

And I got to know [former NFL running back] Marshawn Lynch. Marshawn started talking to me about his experience at UC Berkeley, and how real his "educational" experience was as a student versus an athlete. And you just think these kids — almost the overwhelming majority of this Division I football, basketball players, and 98% are never drafted. Not even drafted. Forget being successful in these fancy leagues. They're not even drafted.  In women's sports, there's not even that opportunity with rare exception.

So I know that there's sort of this romantic view of the world that, while they are treated like royalty and, you know, we pay for their scholarship, and they get all the attention and things. Yeah, but they also sacrifice an extraordinary amount. And they don't have that full experience that so many others are privileged to have at universities and college campuses across the country.

Newsom started focusing on what he calls the injustice that is being done to kids — kids that he believes are fed false promises that somehow they’re all gonna go pro.

GN: It all came to the fore for me about seven years ago, when UC Berkeley came out with the lowest graduation rates for football players in the Power Five conferences: 44%. Basketball was 38%. UC Berkeley, the finest, arguably, public education you can get — maybe UCLA can argue that they're right up there — and the lowest graduation rates.

As lieutenant governor, Newsom served on the board of regents, the governing board of the University of California.

GN: We approve the athletic director contract. We approve the coaching contracts. The highest paid employees in the state of California — public employees — are coaches. So I started reviewing coaches' contracts and realized all the incentives were for athletic behavior. None were for Student behavior.

Now if the notion is it's students first, athletes second — "student-athlete" — it seemed rather backwards. And NCAA fought us on the modest reforms I was trying to argue for as a member of the regents, every way shape or form: slow walked us, put together another work group, a commission. I got to know Mark Emmert, the head of the NCAA as a consequence of this. We had a very good working relationship. He pledged and promised and promoted, but it led me to believe that they're not going to change unless they're forced to change.

OC: What were some of the things you were hearing from them? What were some more of the arguments they're making against it?

GN: That "We got this." "Oh, we understand these concerns." "Well, of course, we're working on that." "We have a work group on that." "We're coming out next year with recommendations." "Oh no, as you know, this has always been our top priority." "Thank you for bringing up the obvious." "We'll certainly get back to you." It's the usual stuff. It's the pablum and then I start learning more about the O'Bannon case, and of course as a kid growing up loving college basketball, not just college baseball.

OC: The O'Bannon brothers!

GN: Right?

OC: They were huge.

GN: Legends.

OC: Yeah.

GN: And then I’m reading more and more about other college athletes experience and the exploitation. And you know, I've started looking at one common denominator. A lot of these are black athletes. A lot of these coaches are white coaches, and I'll be honest with you, that left me raw as well.

And so I've seen a system that's making billions and billions of dollars a year in the aggregate. I'm seeing these athletes that are not even getting a real education, even if they get a degree. They sure as hell don't have — excuse my language — the real campus experience everybody else has. And none of 'em are working just 20 hours a week, which is what the rules say. I started thinking, "Maybe this system is a little exploited. And maybe, as a fan, maybe we should really think about what we're cheering on and maybe, you know, look under the hood a little bit."

But there's been some push back about the feasibility, the validity, and whether or not reforming college sports should be a legislative priority.

GN: You know look we have a million issues to focus on. And, by the way, our critics say, "Well, focus on homelessness, and when you solve that you could tell us how to do our job." Yeah I get all that sort of machismo thing, and it is usually machismo. Let's also establish that as a frame of consideration or reference.

But the legislature was inclined to be supportive of reforms. But, Sen. Nancy Skinner, she had the courage a year ago to introduce some pretty audacious legislation that went much farther than a basic bill of rights for our student-athletes and went to the broader issue of name, image and likeness. And I gotta tell you: you know, the prospect that we'd be sitting here today and that she got that down to my desk and I signed it? I would have given that 10, 15% chance a year, a year and a half ago.

It is a remarkable thing that she was able to accomplish with her colleagues where they were able to make the case not only to their Democratic colleagues, but this was a bipartisan bill.

The "Fair Pay to Play Act" does not mandate that players be paid by their schools or the NCAA. It allows student-athletes the opportunity to profit from their own name and likeness and to sign endorsement deals. But that can’t begin to happen until 2023 and only if the bill survives in the courts.

OC: I'm thinking about that signing of the bill. What I saw on Twitter — that video. You were sitting in a barber's chair looking at LeBron James and his boys. Were they trying to talk you into getting a fade?

GN: LeBron did try to get me to get a haircut.

OC: Did he line you up in the back?

GN: That wasn't gonna work here. No, trust me, especially with this hair.

OC: Tell me how that scene came about.

GN: Well, full disclosure: my wife is not a fan of LeBron's. She's obsessed with LeBron James.

OC: I was worried about where you were going with that.

GN: No. You have no idea. I'm talking about — I know everyone's  like LeBron James' number one fan. You have to imagine the number one fan, the most extreme, multiply that by infinity. You now have a picture of my wife.

One day, a few years ago, Newsom was on vacation.

GN: And this guy starts rolling up in a golf cart, and I'm like, "No. Can't be. It is. It's LeBron James." And I was that guy. I became that guy. I'm like, "Uh, sir, I, I just — I, you know, it's my wife's — I'm sorry. I know everyone does this to you but can I, uh, I have a — my wife's birthday, and if you could just do me a favor."

And I thought he'd walk away. And he probably should have because I was just that crazy fan guy. And he graciously stopped, said, "What's her name?" He said, "What's her birthday?" And then he just did this whole video thing. And I said, "Well, I know this is crazy, but, you know, she's having a birthday tonight just right over there, and I don't know if you have anything else to do."

OC: "There's cake."

GN: The guy shows up at the birthday surprises my damn wife. So I'm husband of the damn year. So now I'm the biggest LeBron James fan, despite being a Warriors fan that has to square that circle. Anyway, I've gotten to really appreciate the work he's done for schools and the sincerity to which I think he deeply cares about his community and his legacy beyond sports.

And he has better understanding of this than 99% of us because he's a mentor to so many of these athletes. And for those that do go to college that never make it to the pros, you know, breaks his heart to see them, you know, working in a car wash, when they were out there selling jerseys and their universities were making millions of dollars off their name and likeness, and they didn't get a damn penny.

Newsom also got to know Maverick Carter, LeBron’s longtime friend and business partner. And it was his idea to have Newsom sign the bill on the set of "The Shop," the HBO show that features LeBron and Carter in conversation with athletes other celebrities. Guests have included Candace Parker, Seth Rogen, Draymond Green, Ice Cube, Drake and LeBron’s former teammate Kevin Love.

GN: And I thought, "You know what? Politicians — we’re so rote and cliched signing bills, ceremony. You've seen the pictures at the desk. And I hand the pen to the author, and we take a smiley photograph, and everyone rolls their eyes, and we move on to the next bill."

And I thought that could be fun. And what a great conversation we had. Their unique experiences and perspectives. And then the politician, the odd man out, with his Adidas on when they were all wearing Nikes. Anyway, they brought that up.

Supporters applaud this effort as a first step that could finally push the NCAA to allow compensation for student-athletes. But not everyone supports the measure.

GN: People I know, some have argued — some coaches have actually said, "It's unconscionable for a governor to get involved in our business." Well, you know, how dare they say that? This is our business. Students, which they allege is their priority, student athletes, that's the business we're in. I'm the president now of the UC regents, and we have 33 campuses, and that's why I worry about these kids.

And I really do worry about them, because I don't think we do justice to really caring about them once they're no longer useful for us, the adults that are able in some cases — respectfully — institutionally to exploit them.

This segment aired on October 19, 2019.



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