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Don’t let NCAA suits decide college sports’ future without athletes having a role

Mark Emmert, president of the NCAA, met with Sens. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) and Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) on Tuesday.
Mark Emmert, president of the NCAA, met with Sens. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) and Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) on Tuesday. (Drew Angerer/AFP/Getty Images)

With the decade closing and four college football teams about to engage in a playoff that annually generates $450 million for people who wear either headsets or suits but not shoulder pads, consider some questions: At this point in 2029, will college sports be plugging along with the same old outdated structure in which the athletes who produce the product are excluded from the billions of dollars of revenue they generate? Or, a decade hence, will some radical overhaul have occurred?

The answer is obvious. Change is coming, and it’s now just a matter of how long it takes and the path that’s chosen. The conversation reached Capitol Hill on Tuesday when Sens. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) and Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) met with NCAA President Mark Emmert to discuss the change the NCAA says it’s open to.

“I think it’s time for us to recognize that student athletes need to get a little bit more than they [have] today, that they receive a little bit more protection, financially and otherwise,” Murphy said.

Later, during a panel discussion at the Aspen Institute across town, Emmert spoke about his meeting with the senators: “I said, ‘We need your help right now.’”

Be wary, though, of an NCAA that for years has avoided Congress as a matter of course, but now is suddenly seeking federal help in order to find solutions to its self-inflicted problems. Instead, ask yourself this: Why does Emmert’s role, at every turn, seem to be to either rebuke potential solutions or look for them elsewhere rather than generating them himself?

The NCAA’s president opposed state laws on athlete pay. Now he wants Congress to act.

The landscape here is shifting quickly. Emmert and the NCAA can’t keep up, so they’re trying to slow things down. Emmert opened his appearance at the Aspen Institute — at a forum sponsored in part by The Washington Post — by distancing himself from the decisions his organization makes. He said he is only doing the bidding of the 1,100 member colleges and universities — members who, it’s worth adding, paid him $3.9 million in compensation for 2017, according to USA Today. What interest does he have in changing anything?

While mulling that question, go through the following exercise, which is one of my favorites: Google “Joe Burrow jersey” and click on the first link that comes up. The Heisman Trophy winner and LSU quarterback will compete in the College Football Playoff shortly after Christmas, so one of those No. 9 jerseys with “Burrow” across the back might make a perfect gift for the Tigers fan in your family. Why, has one on sale, down to $85.99 from $109.99. A bargain!

Now, remind me, how much of that money will Burrow see?

This is how change is happening. The jargon du jour is around rights for name, image and likeness, or “NIL.” Congress now has a bipartisan “working group” on the issue. The NCAA indicated in October it was open to change. It’s obvious: The above example shouldn’t exist for the Joe Burrows of 2029 — or, heck, even 2020. A No. 9 LSU jersey has value this holiday season because Joe Burrow wore it. Period.

“We’re hopeful that by spring there will be some clear indications on where universities want to go on this and related topics,” Emmert said at a brief news conference with Murphy and Romney.

To be clear, Emmert was not on the Hill of his own accord. State lawmakers — first in California, then around the country — forced him there because they’re pushing through regulations that would trump the NCAA. It is, by now, far too much to ask that Emmert lead on this issue rather than be dragged into it.

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

Emmert spoke Tuesday of the hurdles to getting rules passed that would allow students who happen to play sports to make money off their own accomplishments. Title IX must be considered. (True). Athletes should remain students and not employees of the university. (Fine.) Recruiting could be fundamentally altered. (Great!) On and on.

Sorry if it all seems like intentional obfuscation, but it does. Emmert’s appearance on Capitol Hill seeking legislative help comes under the guise that he and his organization are being proactive. But what sort of solution are they seeking? Clearly, the California law — which is scheduled to take effect in 2023 and contains no parameters on what students could earn on the open market — is unpalatable to him. But so do the proposals that are popping up in somewhere between 20 and 30 states.

“Having a state-by-state approach just doesn’t make any sense,” Emmert said.

So here come the feds. And there’s a clear angle to be worked by the NCAA in holding Congress’s hand during the process: It cuts the athletes out of the process.

“Colleges cannot be trusted to do the right things by college athletes,” said Ramogi Huma, the executive director of the National College Players Association, which advocates for college athletes, at a panel that followed Emmert.

What Huma’s group wants: Not an NCAA-oriented solution, but a players-oriented solution.

So beware of what the NCAA getting into bed with Congress could bring. In an interview on ESPN’s “Outside the Lines” in October, Romney said he supported the idea of federal guidelines governing name, image and likeness rights, but followed that support by saying, “What you can’t have is a couple athletes on campus driving around in Ferraris while everyone else is basically having a hard time making ends meet.”

The implication: The Ferraris are the problem. Um, no. The Ferraris would be earned. But the bottom would have to be lifted, too.

Sally Jenkins: Don’t be fooled by empty rhetoric: The NCAA isn’t going to change voluntarily

Romney’s assertion makes it clear that there continues to be some cognitive dissonance as it relates to the rights of college students who happen to excel athletically. The examples of this are tired, but the discourse of the past few days show they’re still necessary. A college student who is, say, a virtuoso violinist would be in no way prevented from profiting from those talents while she or he remains a student. Why should a running back be?

“We’re a nation of markets,” Huma said, “and that’s been missing in college sports.”

Other than in coaching. According to USA Today, which annually compiles an important database that tracks coaches’ salaries, here are the bonuses earned by the coaches who advanced their team to the College Football Playoff: Clemson’s Dabo Swinney, $150,000; LSU’s Ed Orgeron, $225,000; Ohio State’s Ryan Day, $250,000; and Oklahoma’s Lincoln Riley, $150,000. Each could earn more by advancing — on the backs of their players. What a market. Or a racket. Take your pick.

Romney, of course, made his pre-political career in management consulting and private equity investment. So there’s something more than vaguely offensive about knowing how much the CEOs of these programs earn while simultaneously arguing that the skilled workers should be prevented from reaping the rewards their skills yield.

The discussion that’s continuing this week is healthy and necessary, and it eventually will result in real change. That’s inevitable. But as that change happens, watch Emmert and the NCAA and their role in the process. Are they helping it along, or actively inhibiting it? There’s a right side of history here that’s obvious, and it’s their choice which side to be on.

Read more on college sports:

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