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Reforms to NCAA student-athlete model could take the glass slipper away from the Cinderellas

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Everyone in America is busy filling out brackets for the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament — trying to identify this year’s Cinderella team, the lesser-known school that’s going to knock off a powerhouse. But proposals in Congress could take the glass slipper away from the Cinderellas — and that’s why college fans should keep one eye on Washington while the other is on the tournament.

As commissioner of the America East Conference, I’ll be cheering for our Hartford Hawks, making their first NCAA appearance and a true Cinderella story. Congress should understand that a misstep in today’s policy debate about college athletics threatens the framework that lets blue-collar Hartford qualify for a tournament that blue-bloods Kentucky and Duke could not make.

College athletics works because scholarship limits give the powerhouses no more than 13 scholarship players, just like schools in my conference. Schools, and their boosters, are not allowed to pay athletes beyond the full cost of attendance. It’s the student-athlete model and it’s unique in the entire world.

The monster TV ratings, and advertising dollars, this week’s games produce will help every school in my conference pay for scholarships in every sport, not just basketball. Almost 500,000 athletes play college sports, the vast majority of which don’t generate TV ratings or positive revenue.

For the last year, Congress has debated reforms for college athletics allowing student-athletes to earn payments from third parties for endorsements, referred to as payments for their Name, Image, and Likeness, or NIL.

Careful legislating can and should allow students to profit from their NIL while preserving the collegiate model. But separate proposals in the U.S. Senate would go further and move to a pay-for-play system that would professionalize college sports and harm conferences like the America East. That kind of change would end the Cinderella magic that makes March Madness so special — and reshape college athletics in almost every way.

An athletic scholarship today includes not just tuition, but room and board, counseling, technology, nutrition and more importantly — a head start on success in life.

Arguments that these students are missing out on million-dollar salaries are inaccurate and confusing this debate. Of the nearly half a million NCAA student athletes, mere hundreds will go pro in sports — the rest will go pro in careers using the educations sports provided. Should we up-end an entire system for the less than 2 percent of the college athlete population? There must be a better way.

Universities see athletics departments as extensions of their academic missions. If Congress moves athletics to an employee model, with unlimited benefits from the richest programs, universities with smaller athletics departments will stop sponsoring scholarship athletics entirely. Other universities, perhaps most, will reduce the number of sports offered.

If Congress requires men’s basketball revenue stay in men’s basketball, how will schools pay for opportunities in track or volleyball, where ticket sales are tiny and TV revenue non-existent?

Surely Congress does not want college athletics to just become the domain of the biggest, richest universities — but that could happen if they get it wrong by focusing only on the elite rather than the vast majority of colleges like Hartford in my conference, let alone Divisions II and III schools like Southern Connecticut State or Wesleyan. Let’s not get distracted by the money associated with the five power conferences because they are far from the only ones impacted.

Congress is right to focus on this debate this spring. Six states have already adopted conflicting state laws on NIL, with the first taking effect this summer. The deadline for a national standard on NIL is real.

In our conference’s footprint, New Jersey has passed an NIL law that would affect students at the New Jersey Institute of Technology. Without a national law creating a level playing field, NJIT will achieve a recruiting advantage over every other school in our conference.

Congress should provide a national standard — but one that keeps NIL out of recruiting entirely, prohibits colleges from paying students for NIL or anything beyond the full cost of attendance, and protects the revenue sharing across sports that makes broad athletic offerings possible, including opportunities for thousands of young women.

College athletics is a uniquely American treasure. It enables a broad cross section of young people to compete at the highest level while earning a degree that will propel them through life. Congress should take care to not end these opportunities.

Amy Huchthausen is a former college softball player and the first Asian-American commissioner in NCAA Division I. She leads the America East Conference, a group of ten Division I universities stretching from Maryland to Maine.

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