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The Speaker’s Lobby: Legislation on college sports relegated to the JV

There are college football teams that are going somewhere in their quest for a national title. Think Michigan, Alabama, Washington and Texas.

And then there are those who aren’t.

Kent State, Vanderbilt, Akron and the University of Louisiana-Monroe. They were among the worst Division I college football teams in 2023.

Legislation is kind of like football teams. Some bills are headed to the Sugar Bowl. Other bills struggle like Kent State, bound for political oblivion.

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So where does legislation fall to regulate how intercollegiate athletes use their name, image and likeness (NIL)?

Bills to govern NILs are kind of the “mid-majors” of legislation. They aren’t the Big Ten or the SEC. It’s a little bit like the Mid-American Conference or Atlantic Ten.

The bill may become law. It may not.

And this is what worries some when it comes to Congress legislating NILs.

The rules are clear on the field for NCAA sports. But things are vague when it comes to regulating NILs as student-athletes monetize themselves.

The NCAA — being the NCAA — found itself unable to establish a nationwide criterion to address NILs. So it asked Congress to get involved.

“There’s got to be rules so that you don’t have just the wild west,” said Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas. “It’s going to take bipartisan agreement, and we’re not there yet. But we’re making real progress.”

Sen. Tommy Tuberville, R-Ala., was the head football coach at Ole Miss, Auburn, Texas Tech and Cincinnati. He also backs legislation to craft a uniform NIL system.

“I really don’t want to get involved in it being a former coach,” said Tuberville. “But I see now where you got 50 states are all doing something different.” 

Tuberville is pushing for equity among athletes who play different sports. There are issues surrounding programs of different sizes. There’s little equality among schools that play in different states. Some state legislatures have passed laws inducing athletes to come play in their states because of NIL incentives. 

NCAA President and former Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker, a Republican, endorses Tuberville’s bill. 

Tuberville’s plan would dock athletes for entering the transfer portal to switch schools. Student-athletes previously had to sit out a year when changing programs. 

“You just can’t up and leave. You got to pay a price for that if you do that,” Tuberville argued when discussing his legislation.

Power conference schools can now lure top athletes to secure even bigger paydays. It’s reminiscent of free agency in the pros.

But not everyone is pushing for congressional intervention.

“I’m reluctant to say Congress should be involved in it,” said Sen. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D. “It’s not like we improve a hell of a lot of things that we do around here.” 

Sen. John Kennedy, R-La., said some of his colleagues consider themselves “to be an expert on everything,” adding they often have “more zeal than wisdom.” 

Kennedy is leery of Congress infusing itself into college sports. 

“I have warned the athletic directors in the NCAA, be very, very careful before you ask Congress to get involved. Because Congress has a tendency to micromanage,” said Kennedy. 

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Individual universities have tried to help students manage how they market themselves. But schools can only do so much. 

Maribeth Kuzmeski is a marketing professor at Oklahoma State University. She never worked with the athletic department until NILs came on the scene. Kuzmeski says the school launched a class on financial literacy and contract law for student-athletes. She also serves on what Oklahoma State calls the “brand squad” to promote student-athletes and the university. 

“We serve them with helping with their brand, finding deals and opportunities for them and being able to help NILs in particular at Oklahoma State become more successful,” said Kuzmeski. 

Kuzmeski said at first “we really thought the deals were going to come to us.” But instead, Oklahoma State began marketing its athletes and wrapping up NILs. The school got students and entire teams to do events with local pizza parlors and sign autographs. 

Still, universities are limited when it comes to managing NILs.

“The NCAA has not been able to do this. And I believe that Congress is the only ones that will be able to level this playing field,” said Kuzmeski.

Others share Kuzmeski’s hope that Congress will take action. Kaley Mudge is a softball outfielder at Florida State.

“It feels like there are members of Congress that are really passionate about this,” said Mudge.

But she added that lawmakers appear to have placed legislation for NILs “on the back burner” amid the crush of other priorities.

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Consider that Congress only approved 30-plus bills in 2023 that President Biden signed into law. The number was only 22 in the middle of last week. Congress could barely pass two bills to avoid government shutdowns and a plan to lift the debt ceiling. The same will be true in 2024. We haven’t even gotten into the internecine political battles over funding for Israel, Ukraine and border security.

So legislating on NILs? A “mid-major” bill?

This thing may qualify as “Division III.”

That disappoints someone like Mudge who reaped substantial benefits through her NIL — making money on the side to pay for a degree in nursing. Mudge knows there’s no long-term staying power in softball. But she can establish a career as a nurse.

“NIL is becoming more of a ‘How can I save this money in the future?’ than just ‘How can I get as much money as I want right now?’” observed Mudge.

Still, some lawmakers say all the money in college sports just disgusts them.

North Dakota’s Kevin Cramer isn’t involved in writing any of the legislation to set NIL criteria. However, he says the concentration on bankrolls and marketing turns him off to college sports.

“The idea of it becoming a profession, which is what I think NIL does just in my mind, violates some of the sensibilities,” said Cramer.

And that’s what upsets even those who have a long history in intercollegiate athletics.

“This is going to go and separate the big conferences,” said Tuberville. “You’re going to have a small handful of teams across the country that’s going to be the ‘haves’ and then the ‘have nots.’” 

That means the current system will remain in college sports for now — with bills designed to deal with NILs relegated to third string legislation.

   

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