A yearslong debate over whether or not college athletes should be paid could result in Congress clocking in.
As many as 30 states are deciding on provisions for compensation for students who play sports at schools with NCAA teams. But with no consensus on what the rules should be, university leadership, student athlete advocates and the NCAA itself want lawmakers to step in.
“Even the NCAA acknowledges now that federal legislation is necessary," Sen. Chris Murphy told Politico. The Connecticut senator is part of a bipartisan Senate working group studying compensation for student athletes but says congressional action may not be easy. “What's different here is that state legislatures are going to act, and it will be a nightmare for college athletics if every state has a different law regarding the ability of students to be compensated. So there's going to be an imperative for a federal solution here that might create the aperture for a bill to get done.”
The NCAA says more than $2.9 billion in scholarships are given to 150,000 student athletes each year by Division I and II schools.
Meanwhile, college sports generated about $1 billion in the 2016-17 school year, according to Business Insider but currently, athletes are not paid. The association’s rules dictate that they remain athletes focused on learning. A wage for them would "distract in a very significant way from pursuing what they really need to pursue - an education…” said Oliver Luck, the NCAA's former executive vice president of regulatory affairs said in a 2015 speech. “And we need to emphasize the value of that education."
But that has garnered the criticism of many who monitor the sports world or have been college athletes. ESPN host Stephen A. Smith has called the “hypocrites,” while San Francisco 49ers cornerback Richard Sherman -- who played for Stanford University -- says it is difficult for someone who plays a sport to balance that with their academics.
"I don't think college athletes are given enough time to really take advantage of the free education that they're given,” Sherman, who had a 4.2 GPA, told Business Insider. “Show me how you're gonna get all your work done when after you get out at 7:30 or so you got a test the next day, you're dead tired from practice, and you still have to study just as hard as everybody else every day and get all of the same work done.”
California became the first state to pass a law that would allow college athletes to be compensated for endorsement deals and hire sports agents. Each of the 50 states could follow with laws about college athletes signing shoe contracts or other profit engines. But that could create problems at the recruitment level if there are disparate rules across the board.
“I don’t think college sports are irretrievably broken. But I think the basic feeling that I have is just a basic question of fairness,” Mark Lewis, a former NCAA executive vice president, told Politico. “I think the problem has just become too complex, and with too diverse a number of constituents. It takes external forces to drive change sometimes.”
California’s law won’t be enacted for another three years and Florida will decide on a player pay bill in July.
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