NCAA hires lobbyists as athletes battle for pay

College sports teams are fighting back against criticism of athlete pay and safety, hiring two high-powered lobbying firms to make their case to lawmakers and federal officials.

The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) and the Big 12 Conference have both hired outside lobbyists for the first time, new disclosure forms show.

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The NCAA, a nonprofit organization that represents teams, athletic conferences and coaches, brought in nearly $1 billion worth of revenue last year, according to financial documents on its website. But the league is under siege on multiple fronts as athletes both past and present seek a slice of the financial pie.

A slew of lawsuits have been filed against the NCAA, including a high-profile antitrust case brought by former UCLA basketball star Ed O'Bannon.

In addition, football players at Northwestern University voted earlier this year on whether to form a union. The National Labor Relations Board is reviewing the vote to determine whether the players can organize.

The lobbying forms for the NCAA and the Big 12 appeared in the Senate disclosure database the same day that an athletic director from the University of Texas testified at the O’Bannon trial. But the forms are backdated, which indicates that well-connected K Streeters have been working federal sources for weeks.

Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck has been working for the NCAA since the end of April, while former Rep. Kenny Hulshof (R-Mo.) at Polsinelli PC has been working for the Big 12 since June 1.

The forms state that lobbyists would be working on issues related to the “welfare of student-athletes,” a key turn of phrase being used to underscore that players are students — given scholarships and housing — and not professional athletes who should receive compensation.

Polsinelli, a national law firm based in Kansas City, Mo., has long represented the Big 12 Conference in legal work.

Athletic directors and NCAA officials have argued that giving the players additional compensation would destroy college athletics.

"They are students and they compete on teams. Students do a variety of things on campuses like UT and others,” said Christine Plonsky, the women's athletic director at the University of Texas, while testifying at the O’Bannon trial on Tuesday.

"The progress toward a degree is emphasized as much as excellence on the playing field.”

The NCAA, along with its member colleges and universities, touts spending more than $2.7 billion in athletic scholarships annually, and an additional $100 million to “support student-athletes’ academic pursuits and assist them with the basic needs of college life, such as a computer, clothing or emergency travel expenses.”

The organization already spent $60,000 to lobby lawmakers in the first three months of this year with its own in-house staff, and that total has been creeping up alongside the controversy over paying athletes. The NCAA spent $180,000 on advocacy during 2013.

Players argue that they are entitled to some of the hundreds of millions of dollars that the NCAA earns from their labor through tickets, jersey sales and advertising deals. They also say that some sports, such as football, can leave long-term health problems that they will become financially responsible for.

While no major legislation is moving forward in Congress on paying college athletes, lawmakers have dialed in on the topic.

The House Education and the Workforce Committee held a hearing last month to assess what could happen if college players were allowed to unionize.

Representatives from colleges said the results could dismantle the structure of how universities compete in sports, with Stanford University's athletic director, Bernard Muir, saying the California university “might opt not to compete at the level we are competing in” if players were allowed to be called employees.

“Can the NCAA and institutions do more to protect students? Absolutely,” posed the panel’s chairman, Rep. John Kline (R-Minn.), at the May 8 hearing. “Does that mean unionizing student athletes is the answer? Absolutely not.”

A Senate panel, chaired by Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), planned to examine how the NCAA could better serve players, even extending an invite to O’Bannon.

The Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, however, postponed the hearing, and has not yet set a new date. Those working on the issues hope it could be back on before the July 4 recess, a critical point in the legislative session during an election year.

After the hearing was postponed, Rockefeller and Sens. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) and Cory Booker (D-N.J.) sent a letter to NCAA President Mark Emmert to express concerns about the “potential for exploitation” of athletes.

"As colleges and universities generate growing revenue and publicity with each passing year for colleges and universities, the NCAA, and sponsors, the potential for exploitation and abuse of student-athletes has never been greater,” the lawmakers wrote in the letter dated May 5. “In turn, the need for an organization dedicated to protecting student-athletes is more important than ever."

Safety, compensation, long-term comprehensive health insurance — all those issues are “in play” with members of Congress right now, said one person familiar with the issue who was unable to speak on the record.

“There's a lot of congressional interest in all aspects of college athletics right now,” he said.

The new lobbyists for teams and universities have their work cut out from them, as they strategize which offices to hit and how to convince lawmakers that the NCAA is taking care of its athletes.

One lobbyist compared it to what happened with the steroids scandal in Major League Baseball, when the bad publicity of players being hauled to Capitol Hill prompted the league to strengthen its drug testing policies.

— This story was updated at 4:28 p.m.