NCAA President Charlie Baker told federal lawmakers Tuesday that for college sports to modernize, the athletes must remain students.
At a Senate hearing to discuss how athletes are compensated for their celebrity endorsements, Baker and other college sports leaders shifted the focus toward the looming possibility of athletes being deemed employees of their schools—a development that would upend amateur athletics in multiple ways.
“To enable enhanced benefits while protecting programs from one-size-fits-all actions in the courts, we support codifying current regulatory guidance into law by granting student-athletes special status that would affirm they are not employees,” Baker said in his opening remarks.
Baker said athlete representatives from all three NCAA divisions have stated they do not want to be employees of their schools. He also warned that without congressional action, Division II and III schools might abandon their athletic programs.
University of Notre Dame Athletic Director Jack Swarbrick said inaction by Congress would lead to a series of rulings that declare college athletes employee—think labor pacts, revenue sharing and benefits all potentially in the mix—but without uniformity.
“We’ll have a patchwork of state legislation that will also create differences which are unsustainable,” he said. “That for me are the things that are most important to avoid.”
Also appearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee were Big Ten Conference Commissioner Tony Petitti; former University of Florida gymnast Trinity Thomas; Walker Jones, who runs the booster-funded collective that supports University of Mississippi athletes; St. Joseph’s athletic director Jill Bodensteiner; and Ramogi Huma, a former UCLA football player and longtime advocate for college athletes.
It was the 10th hearing on college sports on Capitol Hill since 2020, but the first since Baker took over as NCAA president earlier this year.
The former governor of Massachusetts, touted recent reforms by the Indianapolis-based NCAA, including more long-term health insurance for athletes, degree completion funds for up to 10 years and scholarship protections.
He also told the committee the NCAA was moving forward with its own regulations for name, image and likeness compensation deals for athletes.
Baker, his predecessor Mark Emmert, and other college sports leaders have been lobbying Congress for help with a federal law to regulate NIL compensation since before the NCAA lifted its ban on NIL payments to athletes in 2021. Several bills have been introduced or made public, including a few bipartisan efforts in recent months, but nothing has gained traction despite what many have referred to as an untenable situation.
“Utah is offering everybody on the team a new truck,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.). “Between the (transfer) portal and NIL, college football is in absolute chaos.”
Meanwhile, new legal threats to the collegiate model have emerged. An antitrust case could force schools and conferences that compete at the highest levels of the NCAA into professional sports-style revenue sharing of billions in media rights dollars with football and basketball players.
The NCAA is comprised of more 1,100 schools, serving hundreds of thousands of athletes.
Huma, who has been at the forefront of the push for college athletes to receive more benefits and protections, conceded that only major college football and basketball players should be considered for employment status.
The NCAA men’s Division I basketball tournament accounts for most of the association’s annual revenue, which surpassed $1 billion last year, and Power Five conferences have multibillion-dollar television contracts worth billions with most of the value driven by football.
“People are discussing closing the door on employee status without paying the athletes fairly,” Huma said.
Petitti, who became Big Ten commissioner earlier this year after a long career as a television and Major League Baseball executive, said his schools are open to providing more benefits directly to athletes. The Big Ten signed media rights deals last year that will pay the conference more than $7 billion over the next seven years.
In written testimony, Swarbrick said Congress could consider a “more radical approach” and codify a system in which athletes could negotiate with conferences over terms and conditions of athletic participation.
“They want to know there’s an even playing field, we have to find a way to deliver that to them,” Swarbrick said during the hearing. “That can come either by empowering the NCAA in limited areas to enable competitive equity or to develop a process by which we can agree with our student-athletes on what those rules and regulations should be.”
Bodensteiner, the St. Joe’s AD, said the problems in college sports are impacting only a small part of the enterprise and mostly stem from major college football.
“The reality is at a Division I school like St. Joe’s, college athletics is actually working quite well,” she said.
Jones’ appearance was the first by someone representing a NIL collective at a congressional hearing on college sports. He said the booster-backed groups support federal legislation that would pre-empt state NIL laws and that collectives would like to be involved in the solution.
“I think if we’re doing our part, we can provide really transparent and tangible details to all the stakeholders,” Jones said.
Baker said he was skeptical about collectives helping with transparency and Pettiti expressed concerns about their growing power.
“We are concerned that management of college athletics is shifting away from universities to collectives,” Petitti said.
Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.) pushed back on some of the panicked rhetoric about the state of college sports and cautioned against too much government regulation.
“I’d be real careful about inviting Congress to micro-manage your business,” Kennedy told Baker.