Hopes Fade for Imminent Federal Deal on College Athletes, Pressuring N.C.A.A.

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New state laws are scheduled to take effect on July 1, but there are vanishingly low expectations for a deal in Washington in the coming days.

Senator Maria Cantwell, Democrat of Washington and the chair of a committee considering legislation for college sports, said Thursday that it is “safe to say something is not going to make it through the halls of Congress” by July 1, when several state laws allowing athletes to profit off their fame will take effect.
Credit...J. Scott Applewhite/Associated Press

Alan Blinder

June 17, 2021, 12:29 p.m. ET

WASHINGTON — Congress is not expected to move this month to supersede a crush of state laws that, as soon as July 1, will challenge N.C.A.A. restrictions that have kept college athletes from making money off their fame.

The absence of an accord — or even a clear timeline for one — by the start of July would be a blow to the N.C.A.A. and its most influential and wealthy conferences, which have spent many months and millions of dollars seeking intervention from Washington. Although an agreement could still emerge this year, the prospects for a federal measure to advance ahead of the state laws have gone from a long shot to essentially nonexistent.

“I know that that date is imminent, so I think it’s probably safe to say something is not going to make it through the halls of Congress by that date,” Senator Maria Cantwell, Democrat of Washington and the chair of the Senate committee that has been examining college sports issues, said after a hearing on Thursday. “But I do think that the deadline is continuing to put pressure on us to produce what that agreement could look like, and so I’m still hopeful that before we adjourn for the July Fourth recess, we’ll be able to say what the shape of that looks like.”

Instead, any coast-to-coast baseline standard that might be in effect next month is likely to come from the N.C.A.A. itself. But with more state laws scheduled to come into force in the months ahead, public officials and college sports executives alike believe that changes or waivers to N.C.A.A. rules would amount to a stopgap.

On Capitol Hill on Thursday, when Cantwell’s committee met for the second time in eight days to hear testimony about college sports, the chasm between congressional negotiators was abundantly clear with a glance at the dais: Senator Roger Wicker of Mississippi, the panel’s ranking Republican, was absent. On Wednesday, Wicker, who has particular influence because of the Senate’s 50-50 split, announced a survey of college athletes “to solicit their views on what they would like to see” in a federal measure. Responses are due on June 25, around the time senators are expected to leave Washington for a recess that is tentatively scheduled to last until July 12.

Even before Wicker’s announcement, hopes for rapid legislation were dim because senators are still apart on the scope of any bill. And it has been increasingly clear for months that lawmakers, including some of Washington’s fiercest skeptics of the N.C.A.A, were in nowhere near as much a rush for action as college sports officials.

Those athletics executives have spent years sticking to a bedrock principle of college sports — that athletes should play in exchange for no more than the cost of attendance — under mounting siege. In 2019, a law to let college athletes hire agents, cut endorsement deals and monetize their social media platforms cleared the California Legislature and the governor’s desk with ease.

That measure is not scheduled to take effect until 2023. California’s move, though, sparked a stampede in other statehouses to similarly subvert N.C.A.A. rules. Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, New Mexico and Texas have laws that are scheduled to take effect on July 1. Illinois could very well join them then, and still more states have measures set to come online in the coming years. None of the proposals that have become law call for schools to pay athletes directly.

Squeezed in state legislatures, though, college sports officials looked to Washington for relief and argued that a national standard was vital. Federal officials have tossed about an array of ideas, including an antitrust exemption, sharing revenue with athletes and a more streamlined measure to allow students to capitalize on their name, image and likeness. But no legislation has moved beyond a committee.

Without the federal law it has craved before July 1, the N.C.A.A. will have just a handful of options, none of them particularly appealing to many executives. One would be to approve a set of new rules, or perhaps a waiver of existing policies, as soon as next week to let athletes have more financial opportunities as the state laws begin to take effect. That approach, though, could prove a fleeting salve: Some state laws that are expected to go into effect later are designed to give players more rights than the N.C.A.A. has signaled it might grant on its own.

Another strategy would be litigation. Although the college sports industry prevailed in a case in the early 1990s after Nevada threatened N.C.A.A. procedures, experts have warned that a legal fight this time could involve multiple fronts with, in turn, scattered results. Even if the N.C.A.A. or its allies could win, many executives fear that courtroom battles over the precise nature and scope of expanded rights for players would harden public opinion against a juggernaut that has spent most of its recent history embattled for one reason or another.

One approach, of course, would be to do nothing at all. But that would expose the N.C.A.A. to the very danger it has long warned about: different rules for different states and schools, imperiling fair play and recruiting and assuredly provoking an uproar on campuses that might be left behind.

The N.C.A.A. did not immediately comment on Thursday. After last week’s Senate hearing, which included an appearance by Mark Emmert, the N.C.A.A. president, the Power 5 conferences warned in a joint statement that the flurry of state laws starting on July 1 “will disadvantage student-athletes in some states and create an unworkable system for others.” They added that the leagues would “continue to work with Congress to develop a solution.”

Lawmakers, both Democratic and Republican, have repeatedly expressed interest in federal legislation, and in written and oral testimony on Thursday, a handful of senators heard arguments in support of broad changes around the rules that keep athletes from earning money off their renown. Witnesses, including three current or former college athletes, also voiced concerns about health and safety issues, including sexual assault, and gender equity in college athletics.

Senator Richard Blumenthal, Democrat of Connecticut, said to a largely empty room that he hoped Congress would approve a name, image and likeness policy, but that the measure should also encompass matters like a medical trust fund.

“The colleges are in a race with each other to recruit, and now they’re coming to the table because they face a patchwork of state laws that is desperately inconvenient for them,” Blumenthal said as he addressed the witnesses. “Your testimony shows that athletes want more than just to be shown the money. It’s about futures and careers and basic health and safety standards.”

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