Against the billion-dollar backdrop of March Madness and a scandal involving the black market for star college basketball recruits, the debate over paying college athletes has reached Capitol Hill.
Calling on the NCAA to “fairly compensate” athletes for their labor, Sen. Christopher S. Murphy (D-Conn.) released a report Thursday morning criticizing the $14 billion-a-year campus sports industry for spending more on coach salaries than player scholarships and concluding that the system enriches “broadcasters, apparel companies, and athletic departments” at the expense of athletes.
Murphy’s report comes amid a wide-ranging FBI investigation that has spawned cases against Adidas executives, assistant coaches and others for participating in an underground economy that funnels money to top basketball players in defiance of NCAA rules. The report follows a bill introduced in the House of Representatives earlier this month by Rep. Mark Walker (R-N.C.) that would amend the federal tax code to allow college athletes to profit from the use of their names, images, and likenesses via commercial opportunities ranging from advertisements to video games.
Along with similar, state-level initiatives in California and North Carolina, Murphy and Walker’s efforts mark a potentially significant change in how lawmakers approach college sports. Instead of reflexively deferring to NCAA restrictions on what athletes can receive in exchange for their playing ability and fame, elected officials are beginning to challenge those limits.
“Over the last decade, there has been a gradual shift on this issue from the public, the media, the athletes, and even the courts to some extent,” said Warren K. Zola, a sports business professor at Boston College’s Carroll School of Management. “People have begun to realize that some level of compensation for athletes — a level better reflecting the revenues that have blossomed within college athletics — makes sense. Legislative action is the logical next step.”
NCAA rules long have prevented college athletes from accepting compensation beyond their grants-in-aid, which encompass tuition, other fees, room and board — and, since 2015, small cost-of-living stipends.
However, in recent years, the organization’s commitment to those rules has prompted lawsuits and increasing scrutiny and skepticism, particularly as the amount of money in major college football and men’s basketball has skyrocketed.
“Everybody is getting rich off an incredibly profitable industry except for the athletes,” Murphy said.
Murphy said it bothers him when college officials claim that improving athlete compensation would prove too complex or costly. “If they can figure out how to make themselves rich, why can’t they figure out a way to share some of the largess?” he said.
Athlete compensation is not only as an “issue of fairness,” he said, but also a matter of “civil rights.”
“More than half of the athletes playing big-time football and basketball are African-American,” he said. “And almost all of the adults getting rich off their exploits are white. And civil rights is not just about race. You have workers here being denied an adequate return on their labor.”
Walker said he views the NCAA’s rules as “a violation of basic civil rights,” because they prevent college athletes from enjoying the same economic opportunities as “any other American.” He added: “On campus, if you are on a music scholarship, you can pick up gigs and be paid. Only college athletes have to sign a document that says you can’t benefit from your name, image or likeness.”
His Student-Athlete Equity Act, co-sponsored by Rep. Cedric L. Richmond (D-La.), would not require that college athletes be paid. Instead, it would prevent tax-exempt organizations — including the NCAA and its member schools — from denying athletes the opportunity to make money by signing autographs or endorsing a particular brand of basketball shoes.
Walker’s bill is not the only piece of college sports legislation under consideration in the House. Last September, Rep. Al Lawson (D-Fla.) introduced a bill that would make it easier for athletes to hold paying summer jobs; create a scholarship program for athletes who were unable to graduate before exhausting their athletic eligibility; and provide full health insurance coverage to athletes who suffer sports-related injuries.
At the state level, California senate Majority Whip Nancy Skinner (D-Berkeley) recently introduced the Fair Pay to Play Act to allow athletes at the state’s 24 NCAA Division I schools to be paid directly from a private or commercial source for the use of their names images, or likenesses, much like Olympic athletes.
Meanwhile, lawmakers are shepherding a bill through North Carolina’s statehouse that would give athletes greater legal protections while making it illegal for schools to derive revenue from the use of athletes’ names, images and likenesses without obtaining their written consent.
Taken together, the various legislative efforts represent a significant departure from the sympathetic treatment the NCAA and its member institutions historically have received from lawmakers.
In 2015, Georgia made it a crime, punishable by up to a year in prison, to entice college athletes to break NCAA rules for money. Support for what was called the “Todd Gurley Law” stemmed from an incident in which Gurley — a former University of Georgia football star who plays for the Rams — was suspended for four games by the NCAA after allegedly receiving cash for autographing sports memorabilia.
Similarly, state legislatures in Michigan and Ohio responded to a 2014 unionization effort by Northwestern football players — an effort the NCAA opposed — by passing or rewording laws preventing athletes at state schools from unionizing.
“That was not a statute to protect the rights and freedoms of athletes,” said Marc Edelman, a sports and antitrust law professor at the City University of New York’s Zicklin School of Business. “It was a statute to protect the interests of the NCAA and its members.
“One of the real challenges any lawmaker is going to face is that the major constituent group that supports the status quo in college sports is the large public universities, which yield extraordinary power over the Senators and Congresspeople of their respective states.”
According to the Center for Responsive Politics, the NCAA spent $2.19 million on federal lobbying between 2014 and 2018. The 68 schools with men’s basketball teams participating in this year’s March Madness spent a combined $13 million on federal lobbying just last year.
Walker said his bill has bipartisan Congressional support, and that brief discussions with White House officials have given him confidence that President Trump would sign it into law if it crosses his desk — something Walker hopes to accomplish by the end of the year.
Lawson said there were many members in Congress who want the NCAA to change.
“These are not feel-good things just to have conversations and dialogue,” he said. “We are trying to pass these bills.”