That the N.C.A.A. bars athletes from receiving compensation isn’t the only issue Congress has with the organization.
Health, safety and systemic racism were the main topics of discussion in the third Senate committee hearing this year debating whether to implement federal oversight for name, image and likeness rights for student-athletes who want to monetize their personas through endorsements and promotions.
“The N.C.A.A. has failed generations of young men and women, even when it comes to the most basic responsibility: keeping the athletes under their charge safe and healthy,” Senator Cory Booker, Democrat from New Jersey and a former tight end at Stanford, said in the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Wednesday.
The rights at the center of the hearing, commonly known as N.I.L., would allow college athletes to make money through sponsorships and by promoting themselves. Laws regarding N.I.L. rights have passed in three states — Florida, California and Colorado — and are under consideration in 28 more.
But the N.C.A.A. would prefer a federal policy, rather than disparate regulation across schools and states. Both the N.C.A.A. and its Power Five conferences have devised proposals to address athlete compensation. And both are asking for an antitrust exemption that would protect the N.C.A.A. and its member schools from lawsuits related to the proposed rule changes.
“I don’t believe the N.C.A.A. should be the entity that’s in the middle of this arrangement,” Mark Emmert, the N.C.A.A.’s president, said. “I think that’s inappropriate.”
The proposals themselves have several limitations on the organizations with which athletes can partner: They would not be able to sign deals with companies that sponsor their universities, which would be able to block deals with companies that compete with school sponsors. Athletes also would not be able to sign endorsement deals until after their first semester of college.
Part of the N.C.A.A.’s hesitancy in developing N.I.L. rules stems from its recruiting model. Emmert and Dan Radakovich, Clemson’s athletic director, said they feared colleges would compete in “bidding wars” to attract talent without regulation — a concern vocalized by Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, as well.
Athlete representatives say it doesn’t matter: That is already happening.
Athlete representatives say granting federal antitrust protection to the N.C.A.A. could perpetuate underpaid labor, as student-athletes generate billions of dollars for the college sports industry but never see any themselves — something especially harmful for athletes from low-income backgrounds.
“N.C.A.A. sports use amateurism as cover to systematically strip generational wealth from predominantly Black athletes from lower income households to pay for lavish salaries of predominantly white coaches, athletic directors, commissioners and N.C.A.A. administrators,” Ramogi Huma, the executive director of the National College Players Association, said in his testimony on Wednesday.
The N.C.A.A. expects to finalize a plan by November and put it to a vote in January.
Graham, who chairs the Judiciary Committee, said he would like to assemble a bipartisan group to address N.I.L. rights by Sept. 15, but that it’s unlikely a bill will be passed before Congress’s term ends.
“We’re talking here about lives and dollars,” said Senator Richard Blumenthal, Democrat of Connecticut and a former swimmer for Harvard. “A lot of both. And the point is that those lives need to be put first.”
But those aren’t the only rules that infringe on athletes’ economic rights, senators said. The single-year guarantee for scholarships that colleges can strip from athletes who sustain injuries or who take longer than their four-year eligibility to complete their degrees was also at the center of sweeping reforms that Booker and Blumenthal hope to address in a new venture of a “student bill of rights” focused on athletes.
“African-Americans are disproportionately represented in the sports that bring in billions of dollars for what acts like a cartel, and yet can’t even afford to have meals when they’re hungry,” Booker said.
Some legislation to protect student-athletes has been put forward: Booker and Blumenthal last month introduced the College Athlete Pandemic Safety Act, which would prevent schools from requiring an individual to sign a waiver of liability regarding Covid-19 and from canceling financial aid for athletes who refuse to participate over coronavirus concerns.
Several schools — including Ohio State, Indiana and Southern Methodist — have made athletes sign waivers to return to play during the pandemic. Some ask students to acknowledge they could lose their scholarship should they be seen in public unmasked or to waive school liability should they contract Covid-19, the disease caused by the virus. The senators wrote to the N.C.A.A. that it was “morally repugnant,” and the N.C.A.A. agreed.
“I’m categorically opposed to it,” Emmert said. “I think it is an inappropriate thing for schools to be doing.”
But the N.C.A.A. hasn’t implemented a ban on the use of waivers, nor suggested a halt to fall sports, despite releasing a stringent list of requirements to return to play safely, contingent on improvements in containing the virus. Some conferences have canceled nonleague games; others have delayed the return of sports until 2021.
Senators and athlete activists say the organization has not done enough for athletes, on and off the field, long before Covid-19 entered the arena.
“While scores of college athletes across the country are risking their health in summer workouts in a historic pandemic, their college conferences and the N.C.A.A. are lobbying Congress to strip them of their economic freedoms,” Huma said.