The NCAA, the Power Five conferences and their $2 million platoon of lobbyists had a pretty good year on Capitol Hill in 2020. With Republicans controlling the Senate, the power brokers in college sports were on track to secure a way for athletes nationwide to earn money from endorsements while otherwise maintaining the status quo of amateurism.
Now that Democrats control Congress and the White House, 2021 is shaping up to be a much bigger challenge for those who don’t want major changes in college sports.
The bills now best positioned to advance would guarantee health care for college athletes and some form of revenue sharing, which critics describe as “pay for play.” Democrats pushing such legislation aren’t just motivated by giving athletes access to the free market through name, image and likeness (NIL) rights — a modest reform that has the full support of the NCAA and the Power Five.
Instead, some Democrats see college sports reform as a racial and economic justice issue and are seeking to correct a system they consider exploitative of minorities.
“I think the Power Five and NCAA proposals are dead in the water. They went to Congress and they lost,” said Ramogi Huma, executive director of the National College Players Association. “At this point, all they can do is play defense, which is what we were doing at first. Now we’re playing offense.”
That defensive posture for the Power Five comes after the conferences — the ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, SEC and Pac-12 — collectively spent $1,730,000 to lobby Congress in 2020 — by far the most they have spent in a year, according to lobbying disclosures reviewed by The Associated Press.
The NCAA, despite calling off its lucrative basketball tournaments last March, spent $480,000 on lobbying, roughly in line with its budget in past years, for a total of $2,210,000 paid to lobbyists with similar aims.
Each Power Five conference hired its own lobbying firm and they collectively hired the same two firms — one Republican and one Democratic — as part of their push for a narrow bill giving athletes NIL rights, with numerous restrictions. The Southeastern Conference had the biggest lobbying budget of any league and even outspent the NCAA, paying its lobbyists $570,000.
The lobbyists got most of their wish list into a bill introduced last month by Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., but with Wicker no longer the chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, it’s unlikely his bill would advance if it were reintroduced in the new Congress.
“The body politic has shifted left, there’s no question about it, and that’s toward more student-athlete empowerment,” said Tom McMillen, a former Democratic congressman from Maryland who now represents Division I athletic directors as executive director of the LEAD1 Association.
Sens. Cory Booker, D-N.J., and Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., plan to reintroduce their bill from the previous Congress that would require schools to share 50% of their profits from revenue-generating sports such as football and basketball with the athletes who play them. Connecticut’s junior senator, Democrat Chris Murphy, is drafting his own bill that would also include revenue sharing. That approach has the support of Huma’s organization, which is seeking to represent athletes if they are granted collective-bargaining rights.
“I think Democrats have coalesced around the idea that if you’re going to spend time debating the issue of college athletics, you shouldn’t be limited to talking only about endorsement rights,” Murphy told AP. “My sense is that if the NCAA wants Congress to solve this issue of NIL, they’re going to have to come to the table on a lot of other things as well.”
In a statement, the NCAA said it would work with Congress “to help advance our shared interest to assure the American tradition of college athletics thrives in the 21st century.”
The NCAA and the Power Five had sought a federal solution, arguing that individual states granting earning power to athletes would give an unfair recruiting advantage to schools in those states. But Congress isn’t likely to act before July, when Florida becomes the first state to give athletes NIL rights, and there are much more urgent agenda items for President Joe Biden and legislative leaders.
“I wouldn’t expect that the Biden administration is going to put a lot of work into this issue early in 2021, but as the state laws start to come online this summer, it will command more attention,” Murphy said.
The Power Five continue to push for a national standard for NIL, and Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby would not rule out legal action in an attempt to stop or delay Florida’s law.
“I don’t think college athletics can be managed with different rules and different laws in different states. It doesn’t work,” Bowlsby told AP.
Earlier this month, the NCAA put its own NIL legislation on hold, angering some Democrats in Congress. Another complicating factor is the Supreme Court’s decision to hear an antitrust case involving caps on athlete compensation; a ruling could come this summer.
Even with Democrats in charge, it’s still possible that the NCAA and the Power Five could stave off bold action by Congress. Some members could be persuaded by arguments that sharing revenue with athletes would lead schools to cut other sports programs, damaging the U.S. Olympic movement and potentially violating anti-discrimination laws.
Ultimately, any bill that advances is likely to be a compromise. The Senate is split 50-50, with Vice President Kamala Harris as the tiebreaking vote, and Democrats are hardly unified on the need for drastic reform of college sports.
“I don’t know how far even Democratic or liberal Congress people are willing to go in terms of revenue sharing,” said Gabe Feldman, director of the sports law program at Tulane University. “Many people don’t want to be the ones responsible or potentially taking the blame for damaging this sport or this industry that millions of people love.”
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