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Big college sports are under siege and they want K Street to save them

So far this year, the NCAA alone has spent $ 180,000 on lobbying, $ 60,000 more than the same time last year. The Power Five Conferences – Big Ten, Big 12, PAC-12 Conference, Southeastern Conference, and Atlantic Coast Conference – spent $ 900,000, all to influence legislation on how student-athletes can capitalize on their popularity and “modernize Varsity athletics, according to federal statements.

The contracts with K Street accumulated quickly. Almost none of these conferences had registered to lobby until 2019, when California became the first state to pass legislation allowing student-athletes to take advantage of sponsorship agreements, the use of their image in video games and a host of other potential new sources of income. . Additionally, some NCAA member schools, which have collectively spent hundreds of thousands of dollars lobbying Congress on this issue and others, have sought to influence lawmakers on student-athlete legislation. Those close to the negotiations say that in addition to their representation of K Street, college presidents, coaches and athletic directors have all served as emissaries on the Hill.

So far, the NCAA and the big conferences have little to show for their investments. Democrats and Republicans negotiated compromise legislation to create a national law governing college athlete compensation, but opposed the financial protections the law should give to schools, conferences and the NCAA itself – including protections against potential legal liability – and whether schools should share the income with their athletes.

New Jersey Democratic Senator Cory Booker (a former Stanford football player) and his Senate colleagues Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) And Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) Attempted to come up with a bipartisan solution, after having presented a duel between Democratic and Republican proposals. over the past year. If they are successful, it would be the first time that Congress has legislated directly on the governance of varsity athletics. But while a Democratic Senate aide has said staff hold meetings several times a week, if not multiple times a day, negotiations have stalled in recent weeks.

The NCAA declined to comment beyond remarks on its website, which affirm the association’s commitment to NIL opportunities for student-athletes “in accordance with the varsity athlete model.”

The multibillion-dollar varsity sports industry stands at one of the most notable crossroads in its history. In 2019, California became the first state to pass NIL legislation for college athletes, the culmination of decades of advocacy by the National College Players Association, a nonprofit advocacy group for college athletes founded by the former UCLA football player Ramogi Huma. They argued that student athletes, who have long generated money for NCAA sports, deserve the right to earn their own money through endorsements and other agreements.

To date, dozens of states have laws or executive orders establishing NIL-related rules for varsity athletics, some of which came into effect on July 1, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. California recently extended the deadline for its new law to take effect to September 2021.

This has sparked a rush from the NCAA and college athletic programs, which fear that state laws regarding NIL profits and additional litigation could put the world of amateur college sports in complete jeopardy. Among the industry’s top priorities: a legal shield against retroactive lawsuits filed as a result of actions that violated any legislation Congress might pass before it is enacted. Advocates also called on Congress to create a national standard for the NIL, given conflicting state laws. And they don’t want to be forced to share their own income with student-athletes.

The fear of a possible litigation has increased in recent months. The practical implication of the Supreme Court ruling in June was that the NCAA couldn’t limit in-kind education benefits for gamers, like laptops or a study abroad program. But the case also created “an open invitation and, in some ways, a roadmap for future plaintiffs to bring antitrust lawsuits against the NCAA,” said Gabe Feldman, sports law expert at Tulane University. .

Shortly thereafter, the NCAA adopted an interim NIL policy that allowed students to enjoy their name, image, and likeness with very few parameters: an athlete must obey the laws of the state where their school is located and must report NIL activities to the school.

The NCAA and the conferences fear that the patchwork approach creates an uneven playing field for recruiting. For example, one state may allow a player to wear the school logo in a sponsorship, a designation that may add value to the sponsorship agreement, and another may not, which prompts a rookie high school students to choose one school over another. .

Huma and the National College Players Association are also lobbying the Hill about this. After a winning streak at the state level, he says athletes have already won on NIL and argues that any federal legislative effort should reflect that. “You can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube,” he said. But, he fears, the NCAA and the Conferences are working to overturn much of the new freedom given to players by states.

Huma’s camp also lobbied against an NCAA accountability shield, which it likened to “giving a criminal a badge.” Instead, he and others want better health and safety provisions for college athletes and have backed the bill that Booker and Blumenthal introduced in December 2020, dubbed the College Athletes Bill of Rights. , which would ensure that student-athletes do not have to pay additional fees. out-of-pocket medical expenses for sports-related injuries for up to five years after a student has stopped playing. Schools would be required to contribute to a shared fund based on the income of their sports departments. The bill would also direct the federal government to establish guidelines on how to deal with sexual assault, head injuries and other health, safety and well-being measures.

“Really the NCAA and the conferences and the schools are asking Congress for a favor, and from our perspective, they haven’t won the favor,” he said. “There are corpses, there are people who are enduring indiscriminate sexual abuse that the NCAA ignores, so there are a lot of problems in NCAA sports. If Congress gets involved, it should actually do something to improve it.

Some industry advocates, notably the Southeastern Conference, have opposed proposals that would require schools to cover student-athlete injuries, given that larger schools would likely need to compensate low-resource institutions. who don’t have the funds to do so, according to an agent with knowledge of the negotiations.

Democrats have fought with Republicans – and the varsity track industry – over what protections should be given to the NCAA and its conferences. Moran, who has spoken to top coaches about the matter, including Kansas University men’s basketball coach Bill Self and Kansas State University football coach Chris Klieman, introduced his own bill to standardize the salary of college athletes in February. Moran’s proposal limits the liability to which the NCAA, conferences, and schools may be subject and also prevails over any state law inconsistent with the law.

“The Amateur Athletes Protection and Compensation Act strikes the appropriate balance to ensure that our amateur athletes are protected and able to enjoy their NIL while maintaining the integrity of varsity athletics,” Moran said in a statement. statement, adding that he remained determined to find a bipartisan. compromise.

For now, Huma’s group faces an adversary of considerable resources in their fight against a legal shield for the industry. He called the NCAA a “serial predator when it comes to breaking antitrust rules,” and argued now was not the time to give the organization – which has been criticized for its handling sexual misconduct among coaches and team doctors as well as brain damage. among athletes – all awards.

“It would be terrible for Congress to look beyond and ignore the corpses, to look beyond and ignore the abused bodies, in order to change some things to give the NCAA power and favor while she clearly doesn’t deserve it either, “he said. noted.