Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a law that would let athletes at California universities make money from their images, names or likenesses. The law also bans schools from kicking athletes off the team if they get paid. Rich Pedroncelli/Associated Press

The NCAA has been engaged in identity theft. When California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed the new “Fair Pay to Play Act” into law this week, he restored property to its rightful owners. College athletes merely will regain what was theirs all along: the use of their own names and likenesses.

Here’s the deal. When actor Forest Whitaker went to Southern Cal, nobody told him if he took a role in a movie or signed with an agent, he would be a rule-breaking cheat. When James Earl Jones enrolled in Michigan, there was no edict that he better not use his voice in commercials, unless all the money went to the school. When Ashley Judd was at the University of Kentucky, no one told her she couldn’t make money off of her face – or tried to hijack her image and make a deal with Estee Lauder without paying her a dime.

Yet that’s what NCAA schools do and have done to their athletes for decades. They are the real cheats.

“Colleges reap billions from these student-athletes’ sacrifices and success but, in the same breath, block them from earning a single dollar,” Newsom said on signing the bill. “That’s a bankrupt model.”

You can hear this bankruptcy in the chronically vacuous excuses the so-called leaders of the NCAA continually make for their indefensible abuses. The NCAA Board of Governors lobbied Newsom to veto the bill by warning sonorously that it “would erase the critical distinction between college and professional athletes.” Now that’s a new record for cosseted, luxury-suite-sealed, above-the-law tone-deafness. The NCAA puts athletes up for sale to ESPN for $6 billion in College Football Playoff TV contracts, and to CBS and Turner for $10 billion in NCAA basketball tournament contracts. Yet they have the nerve to say that if a kid monetizes a YouTube channel, it will blur the lines of amateurism. What do they take us for?

Just listen to the stunning double-talk and purposeful misdirection of Pac-12 Commissioner Larry Scott, who makes $5 million a year off the sweating backs of kids, yet acts like this law somehow will come at their expense, and take from nonrevenue athletes. His conference issued a statement that the law will have a “negative disparate impact” on small sports, and threatens that it will “reduce resources” for women and Olympians.

Let’s be clear: The only thing this law reduces is the ability to steal from powerless kids. It doesn’t require schools to pay athletes one dime, or to take resources from one set to give to another. It doesn’t even touch campuses. It doesn’t take anything from anyone.

It only gives things back.

All it does is restore an athlete’s natural god-given right to his or her name and image, to do with as they please – a right every other student on campus has. Natalie Portman made movies and profited from her image while she was at Harvard. Somehow the women’s crew team survived it.

The only thing the law removes or takes away is the jelly-sticky, overgrasping hands of the NCAA and people such as Scott. It prevents them from appropriating things they had no right to in the first place, such as likenesses used on T-shirts and video games. It just gives Scott fewer things he can sell. If schools fear a constriction in revenue, they do so the way a pickpocket fears the disappearance of a crowd.

All the NCAA ever does is deny and delay when it comes to the rights of athletes, so it can prolong its game of misappropriating their bodies. On Monday, after Newsom signed the bill, the NCAA issued a statement decrying the supposed “confusion” it will cause – though it doesn’t even take effect until 2023 – and suggesting any reform should be uniform nationwide changes through its own “rules-making process.”

Now look, they had their chance. The NCAA has had a century to modernize its musty, spidery, Victorian amateur rules, and the only reason it hasn’t is because the members don’t want to. They prefer to keep athletes in an artificially impoverished, rights-less, separate, bonded class.

The NCAA leaders clearly haven’t heard, in their bubble of self-satisfied luxury, the growing clamor for athlete justice. They don’t hear themselves, and their arrogant tone when they argue that if you let a kid earn an independent dollar, the whole “collegiate model” will come crashing down. They sound like the archdukes who think the peasants should be grateful for thin gruel, and place on the floor of the castle. They don’t hear the mob at the gate baying for their heads, who don’t think the castle is worth saving.

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