The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Democrats introduce most progressive plan yet to help college athletes earn money

The NCAA has asked Congress to help regulate athletes’ ability to profit from their name, image and likeness rights. A new Senate bill would do just that. (Keith Srakocic/AP)

A bill introduced in Congress on Thursday is perhaps the most progressive proposal yet to allow college athletes to earn money from endorsements, stripping the NCAA of much of its authority on the issue and allowing college athletes to seek representation and band together to secure group licensing deals.

The bill comes just a few weeks after the NCAA delayed a vote that would have helped pave the way for athletes to pursue moneymaking opportunities from use of their name, image or likeness (NIL).

The measure would preempt existing state laws, creating a uniform framework for college athletes across the country and opening the door for them to earn money in a variety of new ways, including monetizing social media platforms, endorsing small businesses and striking lucrative sports apparel or video game deals.

Called the College Athlete Economic Freedom Act, the legislation was proposed by Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) and Rep. Lori Trahan (D-Mass.). It calls for fewer limitations or restrictions than most other state and federal proposals, potentially allowing athletes much more flexibility than rule changes recently considered by the NCAA.

“Big time college athletics look no different than professional leagues, and it’s time for us to stop denying the right of college athletes to make money off their talents,” Murphy said in a statement. “It’s simple: this is about restoring athletes’ ownership over the use of their own names and likeness. They own their brand, not their school or the NCAA.”

The new bill explicitly states that the NCAA, conferences and schools have no power to restrict or limit athletes’ rights to profit off their NIL, either individually or as a group, and there’s no cap on the amount of money athletes can earn. It would allow athletes to use sports agents to help negotiate agreements and use a “collective representative to facilitate group licensing agreements or provide representation for college athletes,” again prohibiting any interference from schools, conferences or the NCAA. And it threatens penalties or legal action if any of those entities meddle with an athlete pursuing NIL opportunities.

By creating a path for group licensing, companies could enter into sponsorship deals with a consortium of athletes, which would make it easier for an entity such as EA Sports to utilize specific college players in its recently announced college football video game. The company intends to relaunch the popular game with licensing agreements with more than 100 schools in the Football Bowl Subdivision in place, but early plans call for the use of generic players, a topic EA Sports has said it could revisit once NIL issues are ironed out.

Without federal action, the college landscape is poised for a period of uncertainty and irregularity beginning this summer. Six states have approved their own versions of NIL laws, with Florida’s law taking effect July 1 and schools in Nebraska able to permit NIL opportunities to athletes even sooner. Around two dozen other state legislatures are considering NIL bills, and some that have passed measures, such as California, are contemplating moving up the effective date to this summer.

The NCAA has long resisted permitting any moneymaking opportunities for athletes, arguing that any form of compensation blurs the line between amateur and professional activities. Fearful of a patchwork set of laws, though, the NCAA last year asked Congress to intervene, and the organization was expected to amend its own rules last month to allow some NIL opportunities.

Though the NCAA’s Division I Council had settled on a framework — one that critics said included too many restrictions and caveats — the Division I Board of Directors ultimately tabled the matter at its annual meeting last month while reiterating its commitment “to adopting new rules allowing student-athletes to benefit from their name, image and likeness” down the road.

That decision meant the NCAA’s rule book would remain intact for the 2021-22 school year, even as state and now federal legislation threatens to undercut the organization’s ability to enforce those policies.

Trahan, a former scholarship volleyball player at Georgetown, said the NCAA “has utilized the guise of amateurism to justify obscene profitability while student-athletes have struggled to get by.

“As leaders at the NCAA finally come to grips with the need for change, it’s important that Congress enact reforms to establish and protect student-athletes’ right to be compensated for the use of their name, image, likeness, or athletic association,” she said in a statement.

This bill marks the first proposal offered in the newly seated Congress. Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) introduced a measure in December that some critics derided as too favorable to the NCAA because it provided antitrust protections. Wicker was then chair of the Senate’s Commerce Committee, which gave the proposal plenty of weight. But with Democrats taking power in the chamber, Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) will now chair the committee.

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) also proposed an NIL bill last year, as did Rep. Anthony Gonzalez (R-Ohio), a former college and NFL football player, and Rep. Emanuel Cleaver II (D-Mo.). Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and three other Democratic senators proposed a bill in December, called the College Athletes Bill of Rights, which would open the door for NIL opportunities but is much broader in scope.

Murphy has taken a lead on the matter and last year wrote three studies related to college athletes’ rights. But Thursday’s bill marks the first legislation he has put forward on the matter.

“Giving students a right to make money off endorsements is just one part of a much broader package of reforms that need to be made to college athletics, but it’s a good start,” he said.