Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) said compensating college athletes would be a “huge mistake,” and Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) said “it’s a terrible, rotten, no good idea to federalize college sports.”
“The worst thing would be for the Congress itself to write the rules,” said Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), chair of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, which held the hearing. “If anybody has watched 15 or 20 senators try to agree on a press release, imagine what 535 members of Congress would be like trying to write detailed rules.”
While the NCAA has conceded that some consideration for use of athletes’ names, images and likenesses is inevitable, some lawmakers still have reservations about athletes pocketing any money. Alexander, for instance, said sponsorship money athletes receive should be redistributed to benefit their schools’ teams and athletes.
“It would avoid the awkwardness of a center, who earns nothing, snapping the ball to a quarterback who earns a half-million dollars for promoting the local auto dealer,” he said. “… If you want to keep the money and be someone‘s employee, then go join a professional team.”
Other lawmakers broached the possibility of an independent third party or the Federal Trade Commission providing oversight. They also explored what limits and guardrails should be in place. Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) floated the possibility of capping endorsement money at $50,000.
But the hearing, the third time in recent months Congress has taken up the issue, largely made clear how much opposition remains, particularly among some Republicans, to the idea of federal regulation.
“Be careful what you wish for,” Paul said. “The history of government regulation is not a benign one.”
Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) has said a power imbalance and racial inequities are built into the current system, which he said relies on what amounts to an unpaid labor force. Schools reap huge revenue and then spend lavishly, giving athletes educational opportunities but no money.
“For all those in this body who believe in a free market, I don’t know why we decide to keep it from athletes who are producing an incredibly and increasingly valuable service,” he said during the hearing.
Responding to a question from Murphy, Rebecca Blank, the chancellor at Wisconsin, noted that she supports restrictions on coaches’ compensation but said the market keeps driving those salaries up.
“You are not allowed by antitrust rules to restrict the pay of college coaches, but you are allowed by current rules to restrict the compensation of athletes,” Murphy responded. “That is just patently absurd to me.”
Karen Dennis, who coaches the track and field and cross-country teams at Ohio State, also testified, warning that smaller programs could be endangered if money is shared with athletes.
“It would have a really devastating effect on how programs would be able to exist,” she said, noting that Minnesota cut its men’s track programs just last week.
But Ramogi Huma, executive director of the National College Players Association, which has worked with state legislatures to craft bills related to name, image and likeness issues, pointed out that Ohio State saw more than $209 million in athletics-related revenue last year.
“They can’t say that if they were to share some of that with some of the nonrevenue athletes, that they suddenly have to cut all sports,” he said. “You’ll get the scare tactic even from the top producers. It’s just not true.”
During the hearing, Alexander, who is not seeking reelection, noted that the Commerce Committee has jurisdiction over the issue but said the NCAA is best equipped to tackle it. “The alternatives are much worse,” Alexander said.
“The NCAA has absolutely failed in these areas when it comes to college athletes’ rights,” he said. “That’s why we’re here.”