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U.S. senators not waiting for NCAA, form group to explore athlete compensation

NCAA President Mark Emmert repeatedly has voiced concern about professionalizing college athletes. (Matt York/AP)

In recent months, California has passed a landmark law expanding college athletes’ rights and the NCAA has indicated it could consider relaxing rules that prohibit athletes from benefiting from the use of their names, images and likenesses. As the various stakeholders rethink the long-standing collegiate amateurism model, a group of U.S. senators says the federal government should get involved and help chart a path for college athletes to start receiving fair compensation.

“I think that the circumstances have changed since California passed their law and the NCAA made their statement,” Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) said. “I think this is a moment where it makes sense for us to take a new look at what federal intervention is needed.”

Murphy and Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) announced this week the formation of a bipartisan working group that will dig deeper into issues surrounding athlete compensation. The group, which also includes Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), David Perdue (R-Ga.) and Cory Booker (D-N.J.), will start meeting early next year with athletes, school officials and other stakeholders to explore what type of legislation might be needed.

Murphy said in an interview Friday that the matter has taken on added urgency in recent months, and he and Rubio have discussed introducing a federal bill that would help athletes make money off their names, images and likenesses.

“That’s just one part of a much bigger solution that’s needed here,” Murphy said. “But given California’s law, it seems like there’s some immediacy to consider a federal law creating uniform rights across the country for student-athletes to be able to make money off their exploits.”

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In September, California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) signed a similar measure into law that permits the state’s college athletes to get paid for endorsement deals, sponsorships, autograph signings and similar ventures. The law doesn’t go into effect until 2023, and schools and conferences are debating the ramifications as state houses around the country have begun discussing similar measures.

“Having 50 different state laws for compensating student athletes on their name, image, likeness would result in chaos and endless litigation," Rubio said in a news release. “This bipartisan working group has a tough task ahead of us, but it is clear Congress must address this important issue.”

The NCAA has staunchly opposed such measures and said in a September letter to Newsom that the California law “would erase the critical distinction between college and professional athletics.” The NCAA is wary of turning athletes into employees — “this directly contradicts the mission of college sports within higher education,” it said in October — but it announced Oct. 29 that it would consider rule changes that allow college athletes “the opportunity to benefit from the use of their name, image and likeness in a manner consistent with the collegiate model.”

The statement raised more questions than answers for many, because the NCAA did not provide specifics. Mark Emmert, the NCAA president, said in a statement that the organization would explore “a path to enhance opportunities for student-athletes while ensuring they compete against students and not professionals.”

“The fine print of their statement said that the NCAA was going to determine how and when students could make money,” Murphy said. “And that sort of sounds like the same old system where the NCAA sets up a system of byzantine, Rube Goldberg-like rules that ultimately trip up students rather than protect them.”

Rep. Mark Walker (R-N.C.) introduced a House bill in March called the Student-Athlete Equity Act that 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.” That proposal is in the House Ways and Means Committee.

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The efforts on Capitol Hill come at a time when the college sports landscape, inflexible for generations, is suddenly widely scrutinized, with many of the principals saying fundamental change is necessary. It has also become a popular cause for politicians and government leaders. Democratic presidential candidates Pete Buttigieg, Andrew Yang and Booker have made the issue part of their platforms, voicing support for the California law and arguing for more rights for athletes. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) has said college athletes are akin to workers who deserve to be paid, and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) has urged athletes to unionize.

Murphy long has been outspoken on the topic. He issued a report in March related to athletes and compensation and said he heard from several colleagues who expressed an interest in the issue. The result was the working group. He doesn’t envision the group settling on a single piece of legislation and said the lawmakers could end up crafting different proposals.

“I think it’s an important signal that this is now a bipartisan issue,” Murphy said of the group. “And I think the NCAA needs to wake up and start working with us rather than against us on legislation.”