Last week, the U.S. Senate held its initial hearings regarding the compensation of student-athletes under the NCAA.
The debate, centered around whether the “amateur” status of student-athletes should prevent them from receiving financial compensation in addition to existing scholarships, took place in the Senate Commerce Subcommittee on Manufacturing, Trade and Consumer Protection.
This issue gained recognition at the federal level as early as January 2014. In that month, football players from Northwestern University filed a case to the National Labor Relations Board in order to be classified as statutory employees under the National Labor Relations Act.
In August of 2015, the NLRB unanimously declined to assert jurisdiction in this case, dismissing the petition filed by the Northwestern student-athletes. They claimed that making a ruling on any one team would not promote stability in labor relations across the league.
“In the decision, the Board held that asserting jurisdiction would not promote labor stability due to the nature and structure of NCAA Division I Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS),” the board said in a statement. “By statute, the Board does not have jurisdiction over state-run colleges and universities, which constitute 108 of the roughly 125 FBS teams.”
Yet since then, many states have been discussing changes in legislation to allow for further government intervention in collegiate athletics. The most notable among these is California, which passed the Fair Pay to Play Act in 2019 allowing college athletes to hire agents and to make money off potential endorsement agreements.
Last March, U.S. Rep. Mark Walker — who represents portions of central North Carolina including Chatham and Guilford counties — introduced the Student-Athlete Equity Act, a bipartisan initiative to allow student-athletes to benefit from their names, images and likenesses. However, no further action has been taken on the bill.
These laws have prompted the federal government to take a closer look at this issue, with many senators in the subcommittee making clear reference to the newly passed California law during last week’s hearing.
U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) said since states are moving forward on this issue, the federal government must do the same.
He mentioned that many college athletes come from economically disadvantaged families, and playing sports at the collegiate level could help bring those families out of poverty.
“Certainly the legislation in California and the legislation being proposed elsewhere recognizes that there’s been a disparity there that ought to be addressed. I agree that it ought to be addressed,” Wicker said. “Perhaps name, image and likeness is the answer.”
U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), the ranking member on the subcommittee, was among the most vocal members in the chamber on the need for reform in the NCAA.
He said he believed it was important to find ways to protect student-athletes while still promoting collegiate athletics at every level. He also cited the massive amounts of revenue the $14 billion industry provides, not only to universities themselves, but also to several corporations.
“Across the country, college athletes are being taken advantage of by a financial model that has allowed the NCAA and its members to profit off athletes' names, images and likenesses without allowing those athletes to receive any compensation in return,” Blumenthal said.
The ranking member also expressed his concern that college athletes were putting their health and safety on the line to play sports, but their compensation was capped at the cost of attending the schools where they play.
Mark Emmert, president of the NCAA, also spoke at the hearing last week, making clear his belief is that the NCAA is dedicated to the well-being of student-athletes “on the field, in the classroom and in life.”
Emmert said the NCAA agrees that students should be able to benefit from their names, images and likenesses, and the organization is in the process of identifying appropriate ways for them to do so.
He mentioned that the organization’s Board of Governors issued an order to the body’s three divisions to consider relevant bylaws and policies for student-athletes to be compensated in October of 2019. Michael V. Drake, chair of the NCAA Board of Governors and president of Ohio State University, said this was the natural next step to ensure student-athletes’ welfare.
“We must embrace change to provide the best possible experience for college athletes,” Drake said. “Additional flexibility in this area can and must continue to support college sports as a part of higher education.”
It is unclear what further steps the federal government will take on this issue, but some state governments have made their intentions clear. New York and Florida are among six states to have introduced measures similar to California’s law as of November 2019, with ten other states expected to follow suit soon.
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