NCAA’s Emmert presses Senate for ‘guardrails’ on athlete pay

NCAA President Mark Emmert on Tuesday urged Congress to step in and put restrictions on college athletes’ ability to earn money from endorsements, telling a Senate committee that federal action was needed to “maintain uniform standards in college sports” amid player-friendly laws approved in California and under consideration in other states.

The Indianapolis-based NCAA last fall said it would allow players to “benefit” from the use of their name, image and likeness and is working on new rules that it plans to reveal in April. Under the NCAA’s timeline, athletes would be able to take advantage of endorsement opportunities beginning next January.

Meanwhile, more than half of U.S. states are considering legislation that would force the NCAA to allow players to earn money off their personal brand in a bid to address the inequities in the multibillion-dollar college sports industry. California passed a law last year that gives broad endorsement rights to players that is set to take effect in 2023. Florida and other states could grant players those rights as soon as this year.

The NCAA’s concern, echoed by Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby, who also testified Tuesday, is that endorsement deals for athletes would have a negative effect on recruiting, with schools and boosters in states with athlete-friendly laws using money to entice players to sign with certain schools.

“If implemented, these laws would give some schools an unfair recruiting advantage and open the door to sponsorship arrangements being used as a recruiting inducement. This would create a huge imbalance among schools and could lead to corruption in the recruiting process,” Emmert said. “We may need Congress’ support in helping maintain uniform standards in college sports.”

Emmert’s comments were similar to what the NCAA, the Big 12 and the Atlantic Coast Conference have been communicating to Congress with their teams of well-paid lobbyists. The Associated Press has found that the NCAA and the two conferences spent $750,000 last year lobbying on Capitol Hill, in part to communicate their concern that “guardrails” are needed on endorsement pay for athletes to avoid destroying college sports as we know it.

Sen. Jerry Moran, a Kansas Republican and the chairman of the Subcommittee on Manufacturing, Trade, and Consumer Protection, said he was not inclined to act until after the NCAA reveals its new rules.

“My personal view is that the burden lies with those of you at that table at the moment, not with us,” Moran said, addressing Emmert and Bowlsby. “We stand ready and willing to be helpful as we try to figure out how we appropriately change the status quo for the benefit of all athletes who attend college.”

NCAA critics believe there is plenty of evidence that recruiting is already corrupt — pointing in part to the federal criminal case involving shoe companies paying basketball players to attend schools they sponsor — and that letting players earn endorsement money won’t create the major problems the NCAA predicts.

Ramogi Huma, executive director of the National College Players’ Association, which advocates for athletes’ rights, said under current NCAA rules, 99.3% of top-100 football recruits choose teams from the Power Five conferences.

“The power conferences have advantages and they consistently pull the best recruits,” Huma said. “They will continue to get the recruits. The reality is, you’re not going to change the recruiting by limiting the players’ opportunities.”

There was bipartisan agreement among the senators at the hearing that athletes should have access to endorsement opportunities and that some regulations are necessary. But Emmert did not fully escape lawmakers’ anger at the system he presides over.

Sen. Marsha Blackburn, a Tennessee Republican, excoriated Emmert for the NCAA’s handling of sexual violence against women and the case of James Wiseman, a top NBA prospect who left school after he was suspended over $11,500 given to his mother by Memphis coach Penny Hardaway to help with moving expenses. Hardaway gave Wiseman’s mother the money before he was Memphis’ coach.

Blackburn said the NCAA’s lack of consistency and transparency in the Wiseman case had eroded trust in the organization’s ability to handle issues of player benefits.

“I think a question that must be going through a lot of minds of student-athletes and their parents is, how in the world are they going to be able to trust you to get this right?” Blackburn said.

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