The most recent congressional proposal to reshape college sports aims to go far beyond codifying a college athlete’s ability to earn endorsement money.
The College Athlete Bill of Rights, proposed Thursday by co-authors Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., and Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., would create sweeping changes for college sports, including provisions that would force some schools to share revenue with some of their athletes, guarantee lifetime scholarships to athletes in good academic standing, establish health and safety rules enforced by hefty fines for violators, and set up a fund to cover some out-of-pocket medical expenses for current and former athletes.
The rules and requirements laid out in the bill would be enforced by a newly formed Commission on College Athletics, which would be run by nine board members who are appointed by the president of the United States. They would hire a staff to resolve disputes, suggest changes to rules and investigate wrongdoing with the power to subpoena witnesses. This group, which would receive $50 million in taxpayer funding for its first two years, would take on a lot of the work of policing college sports.
“This is one of the few industries in America that is allowed to exploit those who are responsible for generating most of the revenue,” Booker told ESPN. “I feel like the federal government has a role and responsibility that we’ve been shirking in terms of protecting athletes and ensuring their safety. I just really believe there is an urgency here that has not been met for decades and decades. We need to step up and do something about it.”
Booker’s bill is one of a half-dozen proposals from members of Congress to regulate the changing business model of college sports. NCAA president Mark Emmert and others have asked federal lawmakers to help them create a national law that governs the future marketplace for college athletes selling their name, image and likeness rights. The NCAA board of governors is scheduled to vote next month on whether to change its rules to allow athletes to collect NIL payments. Emmert said at a conference last week that their vote is in some ways “contingent upon” receiving help from Congress.
Other proposed bills are focused specifically on addressing what kinds of endorsement deals college athletes should be allowed to sign and what kinds of restrictions colleges and the NCAA should be allowed to enforce. The bill proposed Thursday represents a broader overhaul of college sports. Booker said the larger scope was necessary because the NCAA has not done a good enough job protecting its athletes on several different fronts. Blumenthal said that a bill that creates new rules without a strong enforcement element is an “effectively dead letter.”
Both senators conferred with several college sports leaders when constructing the bill. Booker said they intentionally had most of their conversations with current and former athletes because he wanted to craft legislation that was focused solely on improving or protecting the rights of athletes. Blumenthal said they heard some quiet support from university presidents who feel college sports is in need of significant reform.
The bill’s first stop in the legislative process will be for discussion in the Judiciary Committee. Booker said he thinks it’s possible for Congress to pass a law for college sports reform in the first half of 2021. The bill’s co-sponsors thus far are all Democrats. Blumenthal said depending on which party controls the Senate, it could improve their odds of moving forward swiftly with their “ambitious and sweeping” bill. Regardless, he said, “this is simply an idea whose time has come.”
Booker said he’s had encouraging conversations with politicians from both sides of the aisle on some of the issues addressed in the bill.
“I’m cautiously optimistic that using this framework, we can build support for real substantive changes in how the NCAA operates,” Booker said.
That framework is laid out in further detail in a 56-page proposal that outlines how changes would be implemented or regulated. Some of the most notable details are as follows:
Name, image and likeness
• College athletes would be allowed to sign endorsement deals with a wide variety of companies. They would be required to report any deal to their athletic department within 21 days. That information would be stored in a private database.
• Athletes would be able to sign deals with apparel brands that compete with their school’s apparel brand, but schools can require them to wear school-sponsored gear during any mandatory team events. The one exception is footwear. Athletes would be allowed to wear shoes from their individual sponsor during team events.
• State governments can create laws that prohibit athletes from endorsing companies in certain industries (gambling, illicit substances, etc.) as long as the universities are also prohibited from endorsing the same industry. Unlike other proposals, individual schools would not be able to place any restriction on the type of business an athlete can endorse.
• Athletes in sports that generate more revenue than the total amount of money that is spent on scholarships in that sport would be entitled to share 50% of the money left after scholarships are paid. In FBS-level football, for example, the commission would add together the revenue generated by all 130 football programs and subtract the total costs of scholarships at all those programs. Half of the money that is left would be distributed evenly among all players at the FBS level. The sports that currently generate enough money to qualify for this revenue sharing, according to Booker’s office, are football (both FBS and FCS levels), men’s and women’s basketball, and baseball.
• Athletes would be allowed to hire agents or join groups that would help them secure group-licensing fees. Schools, conferences and organizations like the NCAA would not be allowed to dictate which agents an athlete could hire. The proposed commission would create and oversee a process for certifying agents.
• Schools would be required to contribute annually to a medical trust fund to cover the cost of medical care for injuries related to an athlete’s sport. Athletes would be eligible for funding during their college career and for five years after it ends.
• The U.S. Department of Health & Human Services would create standards of care related to health, wellness and safety. Those standards would address concussion protocols, sexual assault, long-term injuries and more. Any schools that violate the standards would be subject to fines of up to 30% of their annual athletics revenue, which equates to tens of millions of dollars for Power 5 schools.
• Schools would be required to continue paying for an athlete’s scholarship until they finish their undergraduate degree, as long as the athlete maintains a GPA of 2.2 or higher.
• Schools would not be allowed to discourage athletes from taking certain classes or participating in other extracurricular activities. Those that violate that rule could face fines of up to 20% of their annual athletics revenue.
Transfers and drafts
• Athletes would be allowed to transfer schools without facing penalty. Athletes would not be able to transfer during their sport’s season or in the 45 days leading up to the start of the season.
• Athletes also would be able to enter a draft for a professional sports league without losing their eligibility. If the athlete decides not to turn pro after entering the draft, they would have to let their athletic director know they are returning to college within seven days of the draft ending.
• The commission would consist of nine members with various expertise and background. The members would serve five-year terms. At least five of them would have to be former athletes at any given time. No university or athletic department administrators would be allowed to serve on the board.
• The commission would collect and publicly share an annual report from every college athletic department — both public and private schools — that outlines their finances. The reports would include their annual revenue and their expenses, including coaching salaries and booster donations.