The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Should college athletes be paid? Some lawmakers, and a presidential candidate, say yes.

Andrew Yang, 2020 Democratic presidential candidate, says of college athletics, 'The people who are generating the money should be sharing in it.' (Wes Bruer/Bloomberg)

As Andrew Yang pondered a presidential run and began assembling the policies and proposals he would wield on the campaign trail, his list grew beyond the economic and national security issues typical of candidates seeking office. Yang had an idea to change college athletics, and he wanted voters to know he feels it’s time to pay the nation’s top college basketball and football players.

Yang calls the NCAA, which govern college sports for more than 1,100 universities, a “debacle of an organization” and says the issue has resonated with voters as he has traveled the country to make his pitch for the Democratic presidential nomination.

“Everyone knows it’s not right,” he said in a recent interview. “Everyone knows the NCAA’s enforcement of its rules is a joke.”

The idea of paying college athletes is certainly not a new one — though Yang does have a specific plan in mind — but it has not been part of a presidential platform before. And Yang’s pitch comes at a time when the NCAA’s critics are growing louder, congressional interest in the matter appears to be growing and many feel government intervention might be the only way to challenge the NCAA’s long-standing rules concerning amateurism.

“It’s pretty clear the NCAA is not going to budge unless they’re actively kicked,” said Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), a prominent critic of the NCAA’s model.

For former athletes fighting NCAA amateurism rules, a muted victory

In a tacit acknowledgment of some of these concerns, the NCAA announced last week the formation of a working group that will examine the issues that have been targeted by a recent congressional bill related to athletes earning money from their name, image and likeness. Rep. Mark Walker (R-N.C.) introduced in March the Student Equity Act, which essentially would force the NCAA to allow its athletes to be “reasonably compensated for the third-party use of the name, image, or likeness of such student athlete.”

“People are taking a second look at this because they’re saying, wait a second, student-athletes are the only students who have to literally sign a moratorium saying, ‘I have no access to my own image or likeness,’” Walker said in a recent interview. “Whereas if you’re a music student on scholarship, you can play in a band or give lessons; if you’re an education major, you can tutor any time you want to — all down the line.”

While the NCAA has called the bill “unnecessary” and warned that it may “cause unintended consequences,” Big East Commissioner Val Ackerman, who will serve as co-chair of the NCAA working group, said, “We believe the time is right for these discussions.” Still, in the same news release, the organization made clear that the group would not be considering any ideas related to compensation.

“That structure is contrary to the NCAA’s educational mission and will not be a part of this discussion,” said Gene Smith, Ohio State’s athletic director and group’s other co-chair.

Walker said he spent nearly two years talking to NCAA leaders and studying the matter. In the Senate, Murphy similarly has been meeting with principals from the college sports world. They both say the NCAA has shown no interest in adopting meaningful change on its own.

“When I talk to them, not surprisingly, they’re defensive of the way things operate today,” Murphy said. “Their focus is on bad actors rather than fairly compensating kids. … I understand their position. I just think it’s totally wrong.”

Walker said the NCAA recently sent four top officials to Capitol Hill to explain its stance and discuss the House bill.

“It starts with, ‘What do you think you’re trying to accomplish here?’” he said. “That tells me they’re very dug in.”

Tim Nevius, a former NCAA investigator who recently launched an advocacy group for college athletes, said the NCAA won’t voluntarily overhaul its model and would have to be forced in that direction. Few entities have the power and influence to do that, he said, which makes the recent congressional interest noteworthy.

“The NCAA does not change without public pressure or litigation. That’s the long and short of it,” Nevius said. “I don’t think the NCAA will take it upon themselves to create any meaningful change.”

As the chatter increases, the NCAA, which declined a request to comment from The Washington Post this week, has become more active than ever on Capitol Hill, rebutting bills and trying to explain its stance and policies to lawmakers. It can lobby representatives and try to prevent Walker’s bill from moving its way through the House Ways and Means Committee.

Disillusioned ex-NCAA investigator launches new player advocacy group

According to the Center for Responsive Politics, the NCAA spent an average of $154,000 annually on lobbying efforts in Washington from 2000 to 2013. Since then, those costs have risen sharply: more than $2.3 million since 2014 — an average of $438,000 annually — to woo lawmakers.

State lawmakers from California to North Carolina have also considered bills related to the NCAA’s amateurism model in recent years. On Wednesday the California state senate passed a measure with bipartisan support that would allow the state’s college athletes to earn money off their name, image and likeness. That bill will now head to the state assembly.

“[We] think that legislative processes are there for people to debate and discuss these things,” NCAA President Mark Emmert told reporters during the Final Four last month, “and we’ll certainly provide our views and our input into that discussion, whether it's at the federal level or the state level.”

On the campaign trail, Yang, an entrepreneur and veteran of the tech industry, says he has had several discussions with voters about compensating college athletes. He is one of 23 Democrats in the race, and his platform includes a dizzying list of policy proposals, from lowering the voting age to 16 to term limits for Supreme Court justices to empowering mixed-martial arts combatants to unionize.

He says he has heard little resistance from voters on his NCAA proposal, which would create a special designation called “performer athlete.” Yang says the current model exploits athletes and under his plan, star athletes — largely from revenue-generating men’s basketball and football programs — would be entitled to market-based compensation. He says the addition of a “performer athlete” designation would not impact the scholarship status of schools’ other athletes.

“The people who are generating the money should be sharing in it,” he said.

Polling on the matter suggests that public sentiment is hardly universal. A Seton Hall poll this year found that 49 percent of Americans felt that college athletes in revenue-producing sports should be financially compensated, compared with 46 percent who were opposed to compensation. And a 2017 Washington Post poll found that 2 in 3 respondents feel athletes should be paid when their name or image is used in video games or to sell merchandise.

For former athletes fighting NCAA amateurism rules, a muted victory

That same Post poll revealed big racial disparities on the topic — 54 percent of black adults were in favor of compensation compared with 31 percent of white Americans — but found the majority of both political parties felt scholarships suffice — 62 percent of Republicans and 51 percent of Democrats. Walker said college athletics is the rare subject on Capitol Hill that isn’t inherently partisan. He says he’s been approached by lawmakers on both sides of the aisle who are eager to see his bill move forward. The proposed legislation is co-sponsored by Rep. Cedric L. Richmond (D-La.), the chair of the Congressional Black Caucus.

“We live in a very partisan time right now with the personality of the president and the back and forth around the 2020,” Walker said. “It makes it much more microscopic as far as the surgical-like work you have to do to get bipartisan agreement because nobody wants to do anything that gives the other side a win.

“However, I believe there are few pieces of legislation, this one included, that’s such a healthy thing to do for people. I’m hoping that will override any partisanship.”

While there is no similar bill in front of the Senate, Murphy said he’s considering introducing legislation at some point. He said the NCAA’s working group doesn’t seem poised to tackle the larger inequities he feels are hindering college sports.

“When the NCAA makes these baby steps, they clearly are more designed to try to answer political concerns than to practically address the inequities in the system,” he said. “It doesn’t help their case.”

In March, Murphy released a 14-page report titled “Madness Inc: How everyone is getting rich off college sports — except the players,” writing: “They deserve a system that respects their contribution and dedication. That means a new system. That means different rules. That means change.”

“Whether any of this leads to change is whole other question,” Nevius said. “The NCAA doesn’t bow to pressure very easily or at least not just general comments. It takes a little bit more.”

Scott Clement contributed to this report.