Federal lawmakers take NCAA’s broken system into their own hands

The NCAA, which purportedly exists to protect the interests of college athletes, may be in for a fight to keep up that facade.

On Thursday, Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) revealed the framework for a proposed a college athletes’ bill of rights that would finally get athletes a share of the revenues they produce, enforceable health, safety and wellness standards, and other benefits.

The cause isn’t new to Booker: He’s been talking about NCAA reforms for a while, and he also has first-hand knowledge of why the system needs an overhaul — he was a 6-foot-4 tight end at Stanford after a standout career in high school. While Booker didn’t exactly go on to become the next Mark Bavaro, star of his beloved New York Giants, he still knows what it’s like to be a student-athlete at a program in a power conference.

“This issue is personal to me. The NCAA has failed generations of young men and women even when it comes to their most basic responsibility — keeping the athletes under their charge healthy and safe,” Booker said in a statement. “The time has come for change. We have an opportunity to do now what should have been done decades ago — to step in and provide true justice and opportunity for college athletes across the country. Our college athletes bill of rights establishes a new framework for fairness, equity, and safety in college athletics, and holds colleges accountable to these standards.”

Where does the NCAA stand now?

NCAA president Mark Emmert announced a shift in position earlier this year, with the NCAA’s governing body voting to support that athletes be compensated for their likenesses. But the rules and reform won’t be ironed out until next year.

Emmert has asked Congress for help on setting rules around allowing athletes to enter into deals, and also for an antitrust exemption around the issue. But college sports’ governing body has been put on notice: Changes will happen one way or another.

Booker knows the NCAA won’t be quick to fix itself. Why should it? It’s created the myth that athletes competing for member schools are amateurs and must never be paid for the work they do, the publicity they garner, and in many cases, the money they earn for their colleges — all in exchange for a “free” education, though they’re at risk of getting their scholarships yanked.

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Even better for the NCAA, there’s a healthy number of members of the sports media who do the organization’s work for it, upholding the idea that athletes should be grateful they receive anything and are wrong for even thinking they’re entitled to make money off their own likeness.

But consider this: If a student on a music scholarship gets their song on iTunes and banks any amount of money from it, they don’t lose their scholarship. And the school doesn’t make a dime.

And there is, not surprisingly, a racial element to this, with 2017 data from a UMass Amherst study showing that there was opposition to college athletes getting paid because African Americans, who make up a high percentage of rosters in basketball and football, would benefit.

But we’ll set that aside for today.

Booker’s proposed bill is backed by nine Democratic senators, including California’s Kamala Harris, the vice presidential nominee, New York’s Kirsten Gillibrand and Vermont’s Bernie Sanders.

From left, Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby, NCAA president Mark Emmert, UK chancellor Douglas Girod, NCAA executive director Ramogi Huma and NCAA Student-Athlete Advisory committee chair Kendall Spencer appeared during a Senate hearing on college athlete compensation in February. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh, File)Protections for current and former student-athletes

The last few months have only served to underscore how important it is for NCAA member schools to have some kind of oversight in regards to athletes, with some schools telling athletes they must sign a liability waiver before returning to campus for practices and competitions in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The proposed bill of rights includes comprehensive health care coverage for sport-related injuries, financial support for medical bills and out-of-pocket expenses, and coverage for ailments incurred during athletics or from COVID-19. Current and former athletes would be covered under the bill.

Athletes would be able to transfer schools without penalty, including those who have signed a national letter of intent but haven’t yet enrolled at a school. An oversight panel would also be established to give athletes a seat at the table with policy makers and college administration officials.

And at long last, the bill of rights would allow all athletes to profit from their own name, image and likeness without punishment or sacrificing their competitive status. Since California passed a law last year allowing this for athletes at colleges and universities, other states have introduced similar bills, though only Florida and Colorado have joined California.

“Though college athletes power … billion-dollar media deals, million-dollar coaching salaries, and luxury facilities rivaling those in professional leagues, college athletes are blocked from sharing in any of the profit they help create,” read a statement on Booker’s website. “Given the NCAA’s history of athlete exploitation, any legislation designed to provide fair and equitable compensation to college athletes should prevent the NCAA from restricting or regulating athlete compensation.

“College athletes should retain authority to determine and establish fair NIL agreements and have a clear voice in crafting rules at their college, instead of facing undue control and micromanagement primarily motivated by profit.”

College athletes deserve a share

Athletes in almost any sport have a small window of time relative to the entirety of their lives to make money from their talent and achievement, and the NCAA robs them of that chance while their schools profit and certain coaches make millions.

Gymnast Katelyn Ohashi, whose undeniably fun floor routines for UCLA have racked up millions of views on YouTube, should have been making money as she brought attention to the program before she graduated. If Zion Williamson had been able to sign commercial deals with local and national companies, perhaps he would have spent more than one season at Duke.

The pressure is on

“The present state of college athletics is undeniably exploitative,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) said. “The literal blood, sweat and tears of student athletes fuels a $14 billion industry, but until very recently, those students received little in return and were vulnerable to being tossed aside. Reforming this system is about basic justice: racial justice, economic justice, and health care justice.

“Our framework is centered around the principle of empowering athletes. We want to give college athletes the tools they need to protect their economic rights, pursue their education, prioritize their health and safety, and most critically, hold their schools and organizations like the NCAA accountable.”

The bill of rights likely won’t come to pass anytime soon, not while Republicans hold a majority in the Senate, but Booker and those backing the proposal want to be in front of the issue.

The time has come.

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