Two Democrat Senators Spar With NCAA Over NIL, College Athletes' Rights

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WASHINGTON, D.C. — Congressional lawmakers take center stage Thursday afternoon in Day 3 of the NCAA’s virtual convention, “pulling no punches” in a discussion with NCAA officials about its failures to modernize rules governing college athletes.

Sens. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), two high-ranking legislators at the center of Congress’s involvement in college sports, express their frustration with the NCAA in a nearly hour-long prerecorded discussion with CEO Donald Remy. The video will be featured during an NCAA education session Thursday afternoon as part of the governing body’s annual convention. The convention was scheduled, coincidentally, for Washington before COVID-19 concerns made an in-person event untenable.

Cory Booker, U.S. Senator from New Jersey

Cory Booker, U.S. Senator from New Jersey

Booker and Blumenthal, along with Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), have been some of the most public critics of the NCAA during the last year, often accusing the organization of profiting billions from largely Black labor (football players, mainly) while not providing that labor with strong enough healthcare protections and money-making opportunities. Blumenthal and Booker have introduced a sweeping and ambitious Athletes Bill of Rights that guarantees NCAA players monetary compensation, long-term healthcare, lifetime educational scholarships and even revenue sharing.

“We were very robustly frank with him. We laid into the NCAA,” Blumenthal said in an interview Wednesday with Sports Illustrated. “[Remy] asked us, ‘Do you think the NCAA has made progress?’ And basically our answer was there’s been progress, but it’s too slow and too little.”

While both lawmakers describe the conversation as amicable and courteous, they “didn’t pull any punches,” Booker says. Remy defended the NCAA’s progress, turning at least slightly “defensive” late in the discussion as the lawmakers chided the governing body for not taking enough strides in modernizing rules related to college athletes' rights, most notably name, image and likeness (NIL).

The video was shot before the NCAA announced this week that it was delaying a vote on two hot-button issues, one-time transfer legislation and NIL, further frustrating the two senators.

“Since my interview with them, for them to reverse [a decision] on transfer and NIL rules, it is again galling to me that they fail,” Booker says.

“[Remy] was a bit defensive,” Blumenthal says. “I think they think they’re making progress. The announcement this week is Exhibit A of a lack of progress.”

The NCAA this week was expected to approve rules that would allow athletes to profit off their NIL and to transfer once without needing to sit out a year. However, officials are delaying both votes because of the uncertainty surrounding three issues: the Department of Justice’s threat of potential antitrust violations; the Supreme Court’s ruling on NCAA litigation in the Alston case; and the power shift, from Republican- to Democrat-controlled, in the U.S. Senate.

The three issues create uncertainty as it relates to the NCAA’s working NIL proposed legislation, which is expected to go into effect by August. However, the NCAA is hoping Congress passes a federal NIL law that preempts varying state laws governing NIL, the first of which (Florida) goes into effect in July.

In his State of the NCAA speech on Tuesday, NCAA president Mark Emmert expressed frustration in having to delay the decision on NIL and strongly asserted that the governing body will "get it done" eventually.

The NCAA approached Congress more than a year ago requesting the creation of uniform legislation that would avoid the chaos of differing state laws and would give the NCAA control, as well as protection from legal entanglements. In a way, the NCAA’s request has backfired.

Democrats, now in control of the White House, Senate and House, want an expansive college athlete bill, such as Booker and Blumenthal’s Athletes Bill of Rights, that goes well beyond just providing athletes with NIL privileges.

“There was a spirit of goodwill,” Booker says of the recorded exchange with Remy. “My frustration is that I’ve heard the good will for years now, from the first [Senate] hearing we had where I got lip service, to Emmert sharing our belief in things like lifetime scholarships and appropriate healthcare and the opportunities to actually get a degree and fairness in compensation. There’s been a lot of lip service for some time.”

“The college sports industry has a fundamental civil rights issue at the core of its business model, and it’s clear the NCAA doesn’t want to do anything serious to address the inequities that players face," Murphy said in a statement. "I’m working on legislation to fix this issue by granting athletes the broad ability to make money off of their likeness, and collectively bargain for additional reforms to the system, and am hopeful it will move in this new Congress.”