Daily Labor Report®

Student Athlete Pay and Safety Face Scrutiny from Senators

Sept. 15, 2020, 8:05 PM

College leaders told a U.S. Senate committee that Congress should preempt state laws that create a “hodgepodge” of standards for athlete compensation, which they say trigger antitrust concerns and violate laws that require fair revenue for less lucrative women’s sports programs.

The call from university leaders comes amid a racial justice movement that has shed a new spotlight on perceived financial exploitation of the players, the majority of whom are Black, while largely White coaches make multimillion-dollar salaries and their athletics budgets swell.

“It’s clear that student athletes are being exploited. Congress needs to address these injustices,” Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) said Tuesday at a Senate Health, Education, Labor & Pensions committee hearing.

The National Collegiate Athletic Association football season kicked off earlier this month.

Several states, including California, Nebraska, and Florida—home to some of the nation’s most prominent college football programs—have created laws that would address student athlete pay and the NCAA is finalizing new rules that would compensate players for when their name, image or likeness that been used to generate revenue.

Conservatives and college leaders are concerned, however, about a “pay to play” model that would alter the current student athlete model and potentially make the athletes employees.

Rules and Standards

Republican committee leaders said Congress should only act on the issue in a limited way, provide oversight, and limit Title IX gender equality and antitrust lawsuits. Democratic committee leaders said the system should be overhauled and fair standards should be in place to compensate student athletes who generate millions for their universities.

Committee chair Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) said the NCAA should be responsible for the rules and creating standards, adding that compensating athletes could “jeopardize the tradition of student athletes.” Other Republican senators said they were concerned if players received compensation, they would be subject to the rights of an employee, including the rights to form a union, sue for wrongful termination and challenge universities under discrimination laws.

“Those dollars and other endorsement dollars should be distributed for the benefit of all student athletes,” he said.

University of Wisconsin-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank told the committee there should be a way to generate revenue through name, image, and likeness of players, without destroying the student model.

She said Congress should set the rules around name, image, and likeness standards, include a preemption over state laws, create an antitrust exemption that allows the NCAA to enforce rules without facing lawsuits and prevent payment from being part of college recruiting.

“I believe in the student athlete role, emphasis on the student first,” Blank told the committee. She warned that Congress should act before the first state law takes effect in July 2021. “We can’t function under a hodgepodge of state laws that won’t make for a level playing field.”

Representatives from Ohio State University and Utah State University also testified.

Ramogi Huma, executive director of the National College Players Association, a student-athlete’s union, said that arguments against paying athletes are misguided and based on a system that make the student athletes “second class.”

Compensation Over Safety

Huma said there can be name, image, and likeness as well as equitable revenue sharing without cutting non-revenue sports or violating Title IX, the federal law that requires women’s sports to be treated fairly compared to men’s teams.

Rather than limiting access to revenues for athletes, Congress should enact broad reforms that include prevention of sexual and physical abuse, negligence in long-term medical issues for the players, and upholding safety standards, Huma said.

He also said the NCAA has prioritized its rules on compensation over safety standards that could prevent the spread of the coronavirus among college sports teams.

“College athlete name, image, and likeness pay is the smoke that hovers above the raging fire of injustices at the core of NCAA sports,” Huma said. “It would be a travesty that, in the midst of college athletes finding their voice, Congress gives legal cover and protections to cement the devastating racial discrimination that exists in NCAA sports.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Erin Mulvaney in Washington at emulvaney@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Martha Mueller Neff at mmuellerneff@bloomberglaw.com; Andrew Harris at aharris@bloomberglaw.com

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