After long opposing federal intervention, NCAA seeks congressional help

NCAA HQ

The Indianapolis-based NCAA has long resisted congressional involvement in the complicated, often controversial business of college sports.

“Just 115 years,” Mark Emmert, the NCAA president, said with a chuckle Tuesday. “It hasn’t been that long.”

But the time has come, he said: The NCAA now needs federal intervention to help map its future. A new California law opens the doors for college athletes to receive some form of compensation, setting the stage for a patchwork of regulations that varies from state to state, and forcing the NCAA into an uncomfortable, unsustainable position.

That, Emmert said Tuesday, is why he is now open to federal lawmakers getting involved, and potentially crafting uniform guidelines that help reshape the college athletic model. He said he expressed as much in a meeting Tuesday morning with two key U.S. senators.

“I said we need your help right now. I think the debate and the discussion is well past the ability of a group of states to resolve,” Emmert said during an appearance at an Aspen Institute event in Washington, D.C. “I feel very strongly, as do all the universities, that college sports shouldn’t be run out of the federal government, and so far I haven’t met a legislator that disagrees. . . . But in terms of addressing these issues and creating a legally valid model in which the schools can provide more than they do now—whatever that might look like has to be created at a national level.”

Emmert started the day on Capitol Hill, where he met with a pair of U.S. lawmakers, Sens. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., and Mitt Romney, R-Utah, who have said they are studying the issue of compensating college athletes. Later in the day, he spoke at the Aspen event, called “Future of College Sports: Government’s Role in Athlete Pay.”

The issue of athlete compensation has been gaining steam in recent months, particularly with the passage of the sweeping California law, which takes effect in 2023 and promises to hang over the NCAA, the governing body for college athletics that has been steadfast in support of an amateurism model, in the coming year. Emmert said nearly 30 states are considering some form of legislation that tackles athlete compensation. The details vary widely, he said.

“Having, in the end, 50 different state laws is a challenge to anything that’s trying to be operated at a national level around the country,” Emmert told reporters after his meeting with senators on Capitol Hill. “So having this discussion be elevated to the congressional level, I think, is very, very good and certainly welcome in my point of view.”

Murphy, Romney and three other senators formed a bipartisan working group of senators earlier this month. They plan to hold meetings with stakeholders, exploring legislative options that might make the system more equitable for college athletes. Tuesday’s closed-door meeting with Emmert was the first such session.

Murphy and Sen. Marco Rubio, R -Fla., have discussed federal legislation that would help athletes make money off their names, images and likenesses, Murphy has said. And earlier this year, Rep. Mark Walker, R-N.C., introduced a bill, called the Student-Athlete Equity Act, that would force the NCAA to allow its athletes to be “reasonably compensated for the third-party use of the name, image, or likeness.”

Lawmakers have called the issue nonpartisan, but it still promises to be divisive, as different states, stakeholders and lawmakers debate what exactly compensating college athletes should look like.

“It’s an ignominious start to the Senate working group when their first meeting is with the chief apologist for an exploitative system and not with the student athletes that are being exploited,” Walker said in a statement Tuesday. “The inequity and injustices in the current NCAA model need to end quickly. That won’t happen by ceding power to the person who has blocked progress for decades.”

Murphy and Romney stressed that Tuesday’s meeting was only the first of many. Future talks will involve athletes, they said.

“Obviously the viewpoint of the NCAA is not the only viewpoint on this topic that’s going to be considered by the working group, but certainly an important one,” Romney said, “and we’re glad to have had the chance to hear from him today.”

The issue has taken on more urgency, Murphy has said, since September, when California Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, signed into law a measure that permits that state’s college athletes to get paid for endorsement deals, sponsorships, autograph signings and similar ventures. The law goes into effect in 2023, which gives schools, conferences and lawmakers a short window to seek out some uniform framework that might encompass schools and athletes from other states.

The NCAA expressed openness to compensating athletes but has provided few details. In October, it announced that it would consider rule changes to allow college athletes “the opportunity to benefit from the use of their name, image and likeness in a manner consistent with the collegiate model.” Asked Tuesday whether that means the NCAA is open to athletes being compensated financially, Emmert said the NCAA’s board of governors wants athletes to have “greater opportunities.”

“Virtually everybody is in agreement that moving forward on this and related issues makes sense, and this is a really good time to be doing it,” Emmert said. “At the same time, they also made clear some really important parameters: that college sports always needs to be about students playing other students, not about hired employees playing other hired employees.”

Later, at the Aspen event, Emmert clarified that financial compensation could be involved, but he cautioned that nothing had been settled on.

“I think that’s exactly what’s being debated right now,” he said. “It’s being debated in this context of legal precedents that have been established. Member schools certainly don’t want to find themselves in disagreements with the judicial system any more than necessary.”

Emmert said schools are studying the issue, and that the NCAA could have more to share on its intentions in the spring. “That’s not as speedy a process as people might like,” he said, “but in fact, it does allow the schools to have a voice in each of these decisions.”

He said the board of governors wants to ensure that athletes don’t become employees and that schools don’t use the promise of compensation as an unfair recruiting advantage. The NCAA has also been in touch with state lawmakers, he said, letting them know the NCAA is actively working on the issue.

“That will give some reassurance to the states that some of their concerns are being addressed,” he said. “And we’ll just continue to move down that path. Should they move forward anyway, well, then the member schools are going to have to make some decisions about how they might proceed. But it’s too early to really indicate what that might look like.”

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