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'It's Time for Substantive Reform': Senators Demand More From Mark Emmert, NCAA in Hearing

U.S. senators want the NCAA to go beyond athlete compensation in its modernization of rules.

During a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Wednesday, lawmakers demanded the NCAA develop full-scale reform for college athletics, even requesting president Mark Emmert present Congress with a more broad set of modifications to the organization’s archaic policies. More than any senator, Cory Booker (D-New Jersey) scolded Emmert and the NCAA for not enforcing proper health-and-safety standards and for not seeing that athletes are graduating, even using his own time as a tight end at Stanford to lambast the NCAA leader.

“The time has come for substantive reforms,” Booker told Emmert, appearing at the hearing virtually. “The NCAA has failed generations of young men and women even when it comes to the most basic responsibility: keeping the athletes under their charge safe and healthy.”


The third Senate hearing on the raging debate over athlete compensation resulted in little news and a lot of fireworks, as two Democratic lawmakers, Booker and Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), chastised Emmert for, mainly, the NCAA’s lack of universal and long-term healthcare for athletes. This has been building for months. The NCAA first requested help from Congress on an NIL bill in December, seeking a federal uniform standard that will preempt differing state NIL laws. The request has triggered interest from lawmakers in other NCAA matters. They’ve unearthed concerns, now using the NCAA’s NIL request to strike more reform.

The senators’ questions revealed the NCAA president’s stances on some hot-button issues. Emmert acknowledged that he supports what’s called a “scholarship for life,” where athletes may later return to get their degrees. He also denounced COVID-19 waivers that some schools are requiring athletes to sign before they return to campus, calling them “inappropriate,” and he made clear his support for a proposal that allows athletes to transfer once without losing a year of eligibility.

The two-hour hearing brought into the athlete compensation realm a new player: the Senate Judiciary Committee and its chairman, Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina). The previous two NIL hearings were hosted by the Senate Commerce Committee, where the chairman expects an NIL bill to move through later this year. The Judiciary Committee dipped its toes only slightly into the NIL waters. Its real concern seems to be for something grander—full-scale NCAA reform.

Graham says the committee is starting a working group to craft a basic rights package for college athletes, with a deadline of Sept. 15. The group appears to be led by Blumenthal and Booker, who have already partnered on a bill that prevents colleges from requiring COVID-19 waivers. Booker and Blumenthal, also part of the Commerce Committee, are working with a handful of other lawmakers in creating NIL legislation, too. But they want more.

“This pandemic has highlighted the need to enact health and safety protections,” Blumenthal says. “Schools are rushing to bring athletes back to campus. We are watching a slow-motion potential catastrophe.”

The hearing wasn’t without lighter moments. Graham, in fact, was the author of several comments that to college football enthusiasts seem laughable. Rule-breaking in both college football and men’s basketball is somewhat common knowledge to even the most casual college sports fan. In his opening remarks, Graham noted his concerns in an NIL bill resulting in recruiting inducements. “We don’t want a bidding war for recruits,” he said. Later, he said an NIL bill could potentially “unleash holy hell on young college athletes if you don't have some way to control people willing to buy a player to come to a school.”

At another point during the hearing while speaking about coaches’ salaries, Graham said, “Very few coaches get paid a lot of money that lose over time,” a statement disproven by dozens of fired coaches and their million-dollar buyouts.

In more serious matters, both Booker and Blumenthal attacked the NCAA Power 5’s NIL proposal for being too restrictive. Sports Illustrated obtained a copy of a summary of the legislation, which includes a host of restrictions: athletes cannot sign endorsement deals until they complete their first semester of college; athletes can be barred by their schools from entering into certain NIL ventures; and all NIL contracts with businesses and agents must be made public.

Lawmakers took exception specifically to schools having the authority to prohibit certain types of endorsement deals. The NCAA's own proposal is similar to the Power 5’s plan, says Booker. “The proposal is so restrictive that it would prevent college athletes from receiving any endorsement deals from any organization that doesn’t have an existing or prospective contract with their institution or with any of their competitors,” he said. “The NCAA proposal isn’t only similarly restrictive but it actually sunsets after 10 years, effectively blocking individual states from making progress on NIL only to put us back here in another 10 years.”

At one point, Blumenthal suggested that Emmert and the NCAA are “running out of time” and to “up your game.” He asked Emmert to present lawmakers with a broader plan for reform outside of NIL. “Broaden the lens,” he told Emmert.

The more intense moments came between Emmert and Booker. The 51-year-old New Jersey lawmaker released six years of frustration from his committee room pulpit, glaring down at a live video feed of Emmert. Booker and Emmert last spoke six years ago at another Senate committee hearing.

“You just made a comment that you have spoken to me. You have not spoken to me in six years since we’ve (last) been here,” Booker said. “You and I have mutual friends. They say very good things about you as a person and as a leader. I’m opening an invitation to you right now to meet with a group of bi-partisian senators so we can start to talk through about what are your plans to address these things that are patently unacceptable and put our student athletes in danger.”