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Senators Murphy, Booker Send Mark Emmert Letter Over NIL Concerns, Athlete Reform

Two U.S. senators took their concerns that the NCAA isn't doing enough for athlete reform directly to Mark Emmert.

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Lawmakers on Capitol Hill are taking their gripes on NCAA matters directly to the top. Two high-profile U.S. senators sent a joint letter Tuesday to NCAA president Mark Emmert, expressing their concern over the NCAA’s report last week on athlete compensation, a document they claim is “inadequate” to repairing the “broken system” of college athletics.

Sports Illustrated obtained a copy of the 600-word letter from Senators Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) and Cory Booker (D-N.J.), two central figures to the debate in Congress over NCAA reform. The letter describes the NCAA report as “a step forward and a step back.” While lawmakers are encouraged by the NCAA opening pathways for players to profit from their name, image and likeness (NIL), they believe recommended guardrails in the report may be so restrictive that athletes “will have no meaningful ability to receive compensation for NIL rights.”

But at the core of the letter is a focus on athlete compensation beyond NIL. Murphy and Booker strongly urge the NCAA to go further with reform, suggesting a more broad plan that addresses athletes’ health and safety. Such a plan—one expansive in nature—is requisite, the letter implies, for Congress to grant the NCAA preemption from different NIL state laws and/or an antitrust exemption, both of which the NCAA requested in its report. 

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“These requests are potentially sweeping in scope, and we believe that any protection that Congress grants the NCAA or its members from legislative or legal proceedings should be met with a broad series of reforms that advance college athlete protections,” the letter says. “Too many college athletes fall victim to a system that puts their health and safety secondary to winning and generating revenue.”

Congress has become central to a nationwide battle between the NCAA and the states over athletes' rights. At least 30 states are considering a form of NIL legislation that the NCAA says will cause chaos in college athletics without a universal mandate from Congress. The clock is ticking. Florida’s NIL law is expected to be signed by its governor this summer and would go into effect next July, allowing college athletes in the Sunshine State broader compensation options while the rest of the nation operates under more restrictive NCAA policies.

The coronavirus pandemic has put the NIL debate on Capitol Hill on the backburner, but lawmakers have expressed confidence in restarting the conversation. Potential federal NIL legislation is being readied in each chamber of Congress. Already a bill exists in the House of Representative, from Rep. Mark Walk (R-N.C.), but more detailed legislation is expected in the next two months from former Ohio State and Colts receiver Rep. Anthony Gonzalez (R-Ohio). Meanwhile, in the U.S. Senate, Murphy leads an NCAA working group that includes Booker, Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), Mitt Romney (R-Utah) and David Perdue (R-Ga.). Before the pandemic, Murphy and Rubio had come to several compromises on an NCAA bill, Murphy told SI last week, but those conversations have since been put on hold. In addition, the Senate committee responsible for eventually passing an NIL bill to the floor has been closely working with NCAA staff members on the topic. The two sides had a phone call last Thursday regarding the NIL report, Senate aides told SI.

The letter from Murphy and Booker is the latest condemnation from Congressional members of the 31-page NIL report the NCAA released last Wednesday. In interviews with SI last week, many lawmakers blasted the report for revealing too few details and including too many NCAA-friendly restrictions. The report contained pleas for help from Congress without an expanded reform package for which many legislators have argued this spring. Lawmakers want to see the NCAA go well beyond NIL, focusing too on player health and wellness matters, skyrocketing coaching salaries and other lavish spending from a billion-dollar industry that relies on uncompensated labor.

The letter addressed these issues. “Cases of athlete abuse and death across sports remain painfully common, while the coaches involved are often not held to account,” it reads. “Many athletes still end up with medical debt from injuries that athletic programs won’t cover, or lose their scholarships because of major injuries. Thousands of college athletes still face the unnecessary risk of long-term brain injuries due to the lack of enforceable safety standards and generations of college sports leaders overlooking the consequences of concussions. Meanwhile, too few college athletes receive the full benefit of their scholarships.”