WASHINGTON, D.C. — In a conference room on the eighth floor of an office building three miles from the U.S. Capitol, two men met for the first time after nearly a decade of adversarial exchanges through the media. Ramogi Huma and Mark Emmert even posed for a photograph together here, smiling side-by-side despite their professional differences. Imagine it: leaders of the National College Players Association and NCAA, two entities at odds, two men from vastly different backgrounds, two people with opposing views, shared not just a room but a photo.
It was such a momentous occasion that the moderator of this event Tuesday worked it into his closing remarks. “Today has been a huge success for no other reason than we got Ramogi Huma and Mark Emmert to pose for a photo,” Tom Farrey told a few hundred chuckling attendees who gathered at the Aspen Institute for a panel discussion on the government’s role in the future of college sports. “They’ve been dancing around each other for 25 years.”
In a way, the dance is only continuing.
Tuesday was a busy day in our nation’s capital. And no, we’re not referring to the impeachment proceedings of a sitting president. College athletics, for decades fighting against Congress’s involvement, is now rushing to it for aid. Emmert met with two senators on Capitol Hill, an initial step in having decision-makers draft federal legislation to supersede mounting state laws that would destroy the NCAA’s amateurism model. Later, across the city, he spoke for 30 minutes as part of an event hosted by the Aspen Institute, a non-profit, non-partisan think tank. For a few moments, Emmert shared a room with some his most noteworthy adversaries, many of them later blistering the NCAA leader after he left the building and expressing doubt in Congress passing fair legislation.
“I think his comments came across as privileged. I know that sounds harsh, but I’m hoping he’s interested in resolving this issue rather than the smoke and mirrors we’ve seen the last few years,” says Mark Walker, the Republican Congressman from North Carolina who authored a bill that would allow college athletes to make money off their names, images and likenesses. Huma, longtime an advocate for players’ rights, described Emmert’s visit to the Capitol as an attempt to undermine the nation-wide effort of states to overhaul NCAA amateurism rules. “I just hope the members of Congress start to connect the dots,” says Huma, whose Los Angeles-based outlet helped facilitate the passage of California’s Fair Pay to Play Act.
California’s law will not take effect until 2023, but other states have drafted bills that could be implemented as early as spring of 2020, events that have placed the governing body of college athletics—and its leader—at a crossroads. Emmert says a group of university presidents will spend the holidays crafting a legal framework to allow players to monetize their name, image and likeness ahead of the NCAA national convention in January. The group met for the first time Monday, he said. He expects the group to develop an idea that keeps college athletics’ core principles intact, avoids turning players into employees and “protects the integrity of the recruiting process,” a chief concern among officials. The group is interested in creating a framework around a group licensing model, which could open the door to a return of the popular college football video game, NCAA Football.
At the heart of all of this is Congress, an entity that the NCAA spent more than 100 years keeping out of its arena. Not all congressmen are involved. During the panel discussion at the Aspen Institute, Walker revealed that Emmert has refused to meet with him despite multiple attempts. Instead, Emmert held a sitdown Tuesday morning with those from Congress’ other chamber, Sens. Chris Murphy, D-Connecticut, and Mitt Romney, R-Utah, who have formed a bi-partisan working group to examine issues in college sports. Emmert’s message to them? “We need your help right now,” he said he told the senators. Murphy and Romney both emerged from that meeting expressing appreciation for Emmert’s cooperation and suggested that the two entities, Congress and the NCAA, would find a federal solution for name, image and likeness. Lost in all of this is President Donald Trump’s feelings on the issue. He’d have to sign the federal legislation into law. While Emmert is unsure of Trump’s opinion, he’s spoken to White House officials who “don’t seem opposed to the idea,” he said.
Not everyone is so optimistic. “I have my doubts that the NCAA really has a desire to resolve this,” Walker says. “I know they’re having meetings now, but let’s see what happens with it.” Huma is concerned about the NCAA’s influence on Congress. He says he will fight to kill any federal legislation that significantly rolls back characteristics of California’s bill, like a limit on the amount of money an athlete can earn. While Emmert has encouraged states to slow down on passing NIL legislation, Huma says, he’s flying to Congress to “preempt” future state laws. Meanwhile, Walker’s bill is currently on hold, but it won’t remain there if the NCAA fails to find a solution soon. “If they get it done, we’re happy to stand down,” Walker says. “If they don’t, we’re going to go full speed across the finish line.”
Emmert fired lobs of his own on Tuesday during a question-and-answer segment with Jon Solomon, editorial director of the Aspen Institute’s Sports and Society Program. Solomon mentioned that the country’s confidence in the NCAA is at a low point. “Better than journalism," quipped Emmert to a smattering of chortles from the crowd. Emmert smiled and then took a swig of his water, later clarifying the comment as only a joke. It didn’t end there. In a discussion about college programs’ exorbitant spending, Emmert said, “I think there has been an enormous waste of resources on shiny new locker rooms.”
Schools use gaudy facilities to attract recruits, the lifeblood of any college football program. Recruiting is maybe the most essential piece to the NIL debate, college administrators say. Emmert used an example of a school offering a high-profile recruit sponsorship deals with local car dealerships. Right now, Emmert said, most prospects are determining their college choice on the coaches for whom they’ll play, their fit at the school and the professional opportunities the program provides.
Do we really want their college destination to be determined by sponsorships? “If this was about who could put together the best sponsorship deal to go out and recruit the next young quarterback and the school has tucked under their arm three car dealership deals, that’s for all intents and purposes pay-for-play,” he said. But money already influences recruits’ decisions, right? “There are certainly violations of rules,” Emmert said. “Can’t argue that.”
At one point, Emmert’s conversation with Solomon turned to NCAA football video game, which has not existed since the NCAA in 2014 did not renew its licensing contract over ongoing legal disputes regarding the use of player likenesses. Will the game be back? In order for the game to return, Emmert says, the following would be necessary:
- The NCAA needs legal assurances that it would not again be sued.
- A system would need to be created for allocating resources to players used in the game.
- A group licensing model would need to be formed, and in order for that to be possible, the NCAA’s legal structure would need changing.
- There’s the issue with unions, too. “Group licenses are typically done in a unionized environment,” Emmert says. “How do you do that in a non-unionized, non-employee model?”
After his segment with Solomon, Emmert darted off a raised platform, grabbed his materials from a conference room and was whisked toward awaiting elevators, declining any follow-up interviews with reporters because he had “a flight to catch.” Meanwhile, on that same raised platform, Huma settled into a chair for a panel discussion of his own. And just like that, the two separated again, the dancing commenced. “The NCAA wants the status quo,” Huma said, “and they are praying Congress will grant that.”