Business & Lobbying

Senators press NCAA on compensation for college athletes

Senators pressed the NCAA to move quickly on rules for compensating college athletes during a hearing on Tuesday.

"I think that the present state of college sports is exploited," ranking member Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) said at the Senate Commerce Subcommittee on Manufacturing, Trade, and Consumer Protection hearing.

The hearing, the first ever by the upper chamber on the issue, comes as states are moving to pass their own laws on how to help players benefit from the use of their names, images and likenesses in merchandise or marketing.

California passed a law in September to make it easier for players to obtain endorsements and agents, and other states are considering their own models.

To address the issue, the NCAA has created a working group that represents students, coaches and athletic directors, among others, to create rules by April with the expectation that legislation will go into effect in January.

Lawmakers warned the organization to not drag its feet.

"We've got a situation where states are moving forward and we need to address the issue," said Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), the chairman of the full Senate Commerce Committee.

Mark Emmert, president of the NCAA, told the panel that he is working hard to get the NCAA's deliberations on the issue moving along "as quickly as possible." 

"The answers aren't cut and dry but I believe the members, the schools themselves, are looking at this as aggressively as they can under the current circumstances," Emmert said. "There certainly is a possibility that some state legislators could pass legislation that could go into effect over the course of the summer."

Blumenthal encouraged states to continue moving with their own legislation to keep pressure on the NCAA to draft its own rules quickly.

"The NCAA is late to this game," he said.

Blumenthal asked Emmert how to speed up their process to avoid a patchwork of different laws in the states that could create unfair playing fields for colleges.

"I can assure you and the members of this subcommittee that I will do anything in my power to encourage the schools themselves in their decisionmaking process to accelerate those discussions and the decisionmaking as quickly as they can," Emmert said. 

The issue of compensation for college athletes has drawn increased attention in recent years. The NCAA has long fought outside efforts to change its rules on amateur athletes, claiming it would upend college athletics. But critics have said that athletes should be able to share in the exploding revenue for schools and businesses tied to college sports.

In 2019, the NCAA and its allies spent $750,000 on lobbying lawmakers over potential reforms, The Associated Press reported on Tuesday.

In his opening statement, Emmert called the NCAA's process "thoughtful and deliberate."

"We know we're not perfect. We know that the world is constantly changing, and we want to change accordingly," he added.

Subcommittee Chairman Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) noted that there are nearly 500,000 student-athletes that compete in 24 different sports in the U.S.

"While Division I schools often come to mind, we must not lose sight of the over 1,000 colleges and universities across all three divisions included in NCAA," he said.

Freshman Rep. Anthony Gonzalez (R-Ohio) played football at Ohio State University and later for the Indianapolis Colts. He testified at the hearing against the California law.

"The reality is that the majority of student-athletes are facing the same intense financial pressures as the general student body," he said.

He added that, because of the California law, students considering athletic offers now may be more likely to choose a California school. He also opposed the law because he said it creates an "anything goes" situation.

"The California law did get one thing right: It forced the discussion of NIL [names, images and likenesses] into the national conversation," Gonzalez said.

During the hearing, Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) released a statement noting that he was the first voice in the Senate to talk about compensating college athletes less than a year ago. Murphy and Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) met with Emmert in December. Murphy and Romney also formed a working group that month to facilitate the discussions about paying student athletes.

"We now have growing bipartisan support in Congress and a number of states to actually do something about it. I hope that athletes' voices are put first in today's hearing," Murphy said.

Updated at 1:35 p.m.

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