The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

At hearing on paying college athletes, Republicans say Congress should stay out of it

The NCAA says it needs Congress's help figuring out how to fairly compensate athletes, but some Senators aren't interested in getting involved. (Michael Conroy/AP)

The NCAA has been clear that it needs Congress’s help to determine how to fairly compensate college athletes. But during a Senate hearing Tuesday, several lawmakers expressed concerns about the federal government playing a role in crafting or enforcing rules around compensation, highlighting the possibility that colleges and athletes may be forced to navigate a patchwork of state laws.

Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) said compensating college athletes would be a “huge mistake,” and Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) said “it’s a terrible, rotten, no good idea to federalize college sports.”

“The worst thing would be for the Congress itself to write the rules,” said Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), chair of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, which held the hearing. “If anybody has watched 15 or 20 senators try to agree on a press release, imagine what 535 members of Congress would be like trying to write detailed rules.”

Five states have already passed legislation that would allow college athletes to soon receive endorsement money. Some two dozen others are considering similar bills. Fearing a mishmash of rules that vary from state to state, the NCAA has asked Congress to help bring some uniformity to the matter.

At the same time, the NCAA has instructed its divisions to draft updated rules concerning name, image and likeness issues by Nov. 1. The legislation wouldn’t be adopted until the NCAA’s annual convention in January and would go into effect before the 2021-22 academic year.

While the NCAA has conceded that some consideration for use of athletes’ names, images and likenesses is inevitable, some lawmakers still have reservations about athletes pocketing any money. Alexander, for instance, said sponsorship money athletes receive should be redistributed to benefit their schools’ teams and athletes.

“It would avoid the awkwardness of a center, who earns nothing, snapping the ball to a quarterback who earns a half-million dollars for promoting the local auto dealer,” he said. “… If you want to keep the money and be someone‘s employee, then go join a professional team.”

Other lawmakers broached the possibility of an independent third party or the Federal Trade Commission providing oversight. They also explored what limits and guardrails should be in place. Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) floated the possibility of capping endorsement money at $50,000.

But the hearing, the third time in recent months Congress has taken up the issue, largely made clear how much opposition remains, particularly among some Republicans, to the idea of federal regulation.

“Be careful what you wish for,” Paul said. “The history of government regulation is not a benign one.”

Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) has said a power imbalance and racial inequities are built into the current system, which he said relies on what amounts to an unpaid labor force. Schools reap huge revenue and then spend lavishly, giving athletes educational opportunities but no money.

“For all those in this body who believe in a free market, I don’t know why we decide to keep it from athletes who are producing an incredibly and increasingly valuable service,” he said during the hearing.

Responding to a question from Murphy, Rebecca Blank, the chancellor at Wisconsin, noted that she supports restrictions on coaches’ compensation but said the market keeps driving those salaries up.

“You are not allowed by antitrust rules to restrict the pay of college coaches, but you are allowed by current rules to restrict the compensation of athletes,” Murphy responded. “That is just patently absurd to me.”

Karen Dennis, who coaches the track and field and cross-country teams at Ohio State, also testified, warning that smaller programs could be endangered if money is shared with athletes.

“It would have a really devastating effect on how programs would be able to exist,” she said, noting that Minnesota cut its men’s track programs just last week.

But Ramogi Huma, executive director of the National College Players Association, which has worked with state legislatures to craft bills related to name, image and likeness issues, pointed out that Ohio State saw more than $209 million in athletics-related revenue last year.

“They can’t say that if they were to share some of that with some of the nonrevenue athletes, that they suddenly have to cut all sports,” he said. “You’ll get the scare tactic even from the top producers. It’s just not true.”

During the hearing, Alexander, who is not seeking reelection, noted that the Commerce Committee has jurisdiction over the issue but said the NCAA is best equipped to tackle it. “The alternatives are much worse,” Alexander said.

Huma, again, disagreed.

“The NCAA has absolutely failed in these areas when it comes to college athletes’ rights,” he said. “That’s why we’re here.”

What you need to read about college football

Scores | Rankings | Standings | Stats

Conference shakeup: The ground beneath college sports took its most disfiguring shake to date as Southern California and UCLA announced they are leaving the Pac-12 for the Big Ten.

Jerry Brewer: As college sports change, coaches must stop whining and amplify new voices.

Name, image and likeness: As NIL money keeps rising for players, coaches like Jimbo Fisher and Nick Saban are lobbing accusations at each other while most Americans are still enjoying college sports, a Post-UMD poll finds. The NCAA has issued guidelines for schools, but boosters like Miami’s John Ruiz aren’t worried.

USC’s fever dream: At the Trojans’ spring game, minds long addled with college football might struggle to remember where all of the players and coaches used to be.

Season wrap-up: College football can’t ruin the magic of college football, no matter how hard it tries.

Barry Svrluga: Kirby Smart finally vanquished Nick Saban, and now college football feels different.

John Feinstein: Don’t underestimate Deion Sanders — and don’t take your eyes off him.