A congressional hearing Wednesday focused on the “NIL chaos” in college sports led to athletes being considered employees of their schools and largely highlighted those who support congressional intervention to protect the university model.
The House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee held its first hearing on college sports on Capitol Hill in more than two years.
The intention was to compensate the name, image and likeness of the athletes. College sports leaders are calling for help in the form of federal legislation to enact uniform regulations on how athletes can cash in on their fame through sponsorship or endorsement deals.
Rep. Gus Bilirakis (Fla.-R), chairman of the Subcommittee on Innovation, Data and Commerce, said passing federal NIL legislation that would preempt existing state laws would provide clarity and transparency for athletes.
“The lack of uniformity across states and institutions has created confusion and uncertainty, and a federal standard is needed so all athletes play by the same rules,” Bilirakis said. “In short, we must strike a delicate balance between the right of college athletes to profit from their own NIL while maintaining amateur status for all college athletes.”
Seven previous hearings have been held in the House and Senate, but lawmakers have not made significant progress on college sports legislation since the topic first began to gain attention.
The final hearing was held days before the Final Four of the NCAA men’s and women’s basketball tournaments were to be played in Texas.
Lawmakers questioned six witnesses for nearly three hours. They heard from two college athletic administrators, the president of a Division II university, a former NFL player, a current Florida State softball player and one of the leaders of an athlete advocacy group.
Most witnesses encouraged Congress to act on the NIL.
“We need transparency in the marketplace,” Washington State athletic director Pat Chun said.
Jason Stahl, executive director of the College Football Players Association, pushed back. He said any NIL regulations would only serve the interests of schools, conferences and the NCAA.
“The federal government should stay out of NIL’s free market,” he said.
The NCAA lifted its ban on college athletes cashing in on their fame nearly two years ago, but the fear of lawsuits and a slew of NIL laws at the state level have deterred the association from enacting detailed and uniform rules.
“The current NIL chaos means that student-athletes are left to fend for themselves,” said Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (Wash.-R). “And those at the top of their game have to figure out how to maneuver through a multitude of agents, clubs and high-value contract offers while maintaining their academic and athletic commitments.”
The concern of many in college sports is that the NIL is being used as a recruiting incentive or de facto pay-to-play, which are still in violation of NCAA rules but difficult to enforce.
New NCAA President Charlie Baker, who was not among the witnesses at the hearing, said athletes are consumers in this growing market and that a federal law would be a form of consumer protection.
“The NIL is a powerful vehicle that rightfully allows student-athletes the opportunity to earn compensation from their unique market value,” Baker said in a statement. “At the same time, the lack of transparency in today’s NIL market puts student-athletes at risk of exploitation by bad actors.”
The hearing also drew attention to the issue of college athletes being considered employees and the possibility of requiring colleges to share with the athletes the revenue generated by their sports.
At most Division I schools, football and basketball revenues help fund all other sports.
“Creating an employee-employer model would significantly threaten this current dynamic and change everything we know about how sports outside of football and men’s basketball are supported,” said Florida State softball player Caley Mudge.
A bill introduced by the California state legislature in January would — if passed — require some Division I schools to share a percentage of revenue with most football and basketball players.
A federal lawsuit filed in Pennsylvania seeks to force colleges to treat Division I athletes as employees and begin paying them an hourly wage. A complaint to the State Labor Relations Board could result in some college athletes being granted employee status, which could open the door to unions.
“How is a football player unionized and a softball player not?” Chun said.
Patriot League Commissioner Jen Heppel, who testified before lawmakers, said in written testimony that Division I athletes being considered employees “would likely represent a tipping point for sponsorship of athletic programs at Patriot League institutions.”
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