Calling the NCAA's bluff

The happy ant farm that is the California legislature is hard at work trying to grind a college athlete ''s bill of rights through its various nooks and crannies, apparently just to see if the NCAA will sit up and take notice.

Well, trust us. It will. And it won't be happy.

The legislation, which would allow limited endorsement opportunities and provide more scholarship money for the intercollegiate run, jump, throw and collide set, is grinding slowly through the various committees (read: legislative sinkholes) and at some point may, indeed, reach the desk of Gov. Queen Latifah.

And if it reaches that point, the NCAA is threatening to eject the entire California delegation rather than accede to such economic terrorism.

Now, nobody happens to believe this threat because, well, it's California, with all those TV sets and all those viewers and all that innate power. Besides, nobody is banking too heavily on the off-chance that your favorite Division II strong safety will be a few bucks a month further away from starvation when all this is done. After all, Californians would sooner have the Powerpuff Girls run for Superintendent of Schools than concern themselves with such meaty topics as this.

Then again, we've voted for medical marijuana (with a concurrent resolution declaring that all the state's residents have glaucoma), the right of the terminally ill to opt for death, and in some cases for nuclear-free zones (as though Berkeley will be spared by the nature of the law when Latvia drops the big one on Treasure Island). Hey, we're turning the governor's mansion into a bed and breakfast, for Christ's sake. We are way whack.

But frankly, I believe the threat. I think the NCAA would make California disappear if it passed the bill. I believe they would vaporize UCLA, USC, Cal, Stanford and all the other institutes of higher blocking schemes to keep this evil from spreading to its voting base.

They'd be nuts, but do you really need proof of that?

Here's the deal. The NCAA's power isn't in California, and never really has been. Its strength has always been the Midwest and Southeast --- the Big 10 and the Big 12 and the SEC and now the ACC. California has never been a material part of the NCAA's philosophical center, and its leaders are strictly heartland.

But California is kind of a scary little domino to set in motion. Nebraska already has passed a pay-for-play bill of their own, which will become effective if four other states that are home to Big 12 Conference schools enact similar laws. Thus, this little piece of legislation has unintended consequences that would shake the NCAA to it's we'll-decide-what-an-amateur-is-thank-you-very-much roots.

So why wouldn't they be nervous? Why wouldn't they promise God's own wrath on a large but still fringe constituency to save its most honored tenet -- "Your youthful poverty builds my character.''

And I suspect they very much would want to follow through. This pay-for-play thing costs big money, bigger than anyone has realistically penciled out, and California can start a landslide that sweeps through the very heartland the NCAA holds most dear.

There is so much for the NCAA to risk by doing nothing, it seems, that doing something drastic seems less draconian, if that makes any sense. And their only real hammer in a case like this is to chuck all 47 member schools aside.

Well, there is also the power of double secret probation, which, while selectively applied, can damage your average athletic department for years. But it doesn't seem convincing for the NCAA to put, say, UC Santa Cruz on probation for academic fraud and lack of administrative oversight or illegal emoluments. Their nickname is the Banana Slugs.

So what can be done? Well, the usual high-pressure lobbying that drives most legislation would help. Most legislators have college degrees (although most of them could do as well with just a 4-H certificate and a Tootsie Pop), and may have aspirations to run a university of their own some day.

Plus, there is the great possibility that one of the state assemblymen might leave the bill in his pants and send it off to a dry cleaner for a quick steam and press. "Hey, where's that bill? ... Damn it, I know I had it the other day. You know, I probably should have made a copy of that. ... Oh well. Who's up for lunch and a quick steam?''

And if you don't think these yay-hoos are capable of that, then you haven't been paying attention to our governor's race. At this point, the X-Games have thrown the Democratic Party into a candidate tizzy.

So the NCAA may be worrying about nothing ... which is handy with the Flinstonian fullness of their plates now. Baylor, Ohio State, Georgia, St. Bonaventure, Iowa State, Washington, Alabama, dozens of others -- hardly the picture of rectitude, this intercollegiate athletics thing. They have, in short, things to do.

But they would drop it all to save the bank, and California is chiseling slowly toward the back entrance to the vault.

They would at least give it serious consideration. After all, the NFL has lived quite happily without the Los Angeles market for almost a decade now. Sure, the networks would squawk, but it's the law of supply-and-demand, Jack. They have all the supply, and they can demand whatever the frog they want.

Besides, what's UC Davis ever done for them?

So pay attention to the California Assembly and Senate, as much as it may mean paying attention to a herd of snails during hibernation season. If they ever get around to this, they could throw the entire structure of the NCAA into plutonium-tipped turmoil.

And if not, we'll at least get to enjoy C-SPAN for more than just the sex.

Ray Ratto is a columnist with the San Francisco Chronicle and a regular contributor to ESPN.com