An Unusual Coalition: Five U.S. Senators Spark Bipartisan Effort on Student-Athlete Compensation

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A group of five United States senators announced that they will be discussing the drafting of federal legislation addressing the compensation of college athletes. The five senators are: Cory Booker, D-New Jersey; Chris Murphy, D-Connecticut; Mitt Romney, R-Utah; Marco Rubio, R-Florida; and David Perdue, R-Georgia.

As we reported earlier, California became the first state to allow student-athletes to be compensated through endorsements or sponsorships. The NCAA was vehemently opposed to any efforts to mandate payment of college athletes and even threatened to ban California schools over the new law. However, after facing numerous bills in other states, as well as an antitrust lawsuit that is currently pending appeal in the Ninth Circuit, the NCAA announced in late October that it would begin to allow athletes to profit off of their name, image, and likeness.

Even with the NCAA agreeing to take action on student-athlete compensation, there is general agreement among the senators that federal action is necessary. However, there are still party differences as to how student-athletes should be paid. In their statements, Booker and Murphy emphasized issues of racial inequality, considering how the NCAA and schools make billions from the labor of college athletes without the students seeing any revenue. Sen. Murphy went even further, calling student-athlete compensation a civil rights issue.

On the other hand, the Republican members of the coalition did not discuss racial issues, focusing on other areas altogether. Sen. Romney discussed issues of fairness but also noted the importance of “preserving the integrity of collegiate sports.” Meanwhile, Rubio and Perdue did not touch upon fairness at all, instead focusing on the problems that could result from inconsistent state laws on the issue.

There is still some support for the existing NCAA rules: Republican Sen. Richard Burr stated his intent to tax scholarships if student-athletes are allowed to profit off their name, image, and likeness. Further, a federation of U.S. high schools supported the NCAA’s amateurism model by filing a brief in the Ninth Circuit appeal.

Still, there has certainly been a major shift in public opinion over college athlete pay with state legislatures, federal lawmakers, and even Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang criticizing NCAA rules. This shift in opinion, as evident by this newly formed coalition of U.S. senators, is certain to result in substantive changes to the NCAA’s status quo. We will continue to monitor this issue.

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