Key Republican Senators to Skip Athletes' Rights Hearing as NIL Talks Hit Another Snag

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WASHINGTON — The faint hope that Congress would pass a bill by July 1 to govern athlete compensation died long ago. Now, the hope that such legislation will get passed by the end of the calendar year is dwindling, too.

Notable Republican senators are not expected to participate in the latest Senate hearing Thursday over athlete compensation, a strong signal of the growing divide between the two sides over an issue that has sparked a sweeping, nationwide movement of state laws threatening the equitability of NCAA sports.

The Senate Commerce Committee, the group with jurisdiction over the topic, is scheduled to hold a hearing on athletes’ rights eight days after the last hearing ended without marked progress toward federal legislation. Thursday’s hearing is different, for two reasons, from the other six held on Capitol Hill over the last 16 months: College athletes will serve as witnesses and the top Republicans will not be in attendance.

The U.S. Capitol is seen at dusk

The hearing, led by the Senate’s majority party, the Democrats, is expected to be absent of many of the Commerce Committee’s minority members, legislative aides tell Sports Illustrated. Those include, most notably, senators Roger Wicker (R., Miss.) and Marsha Blackburn (R., Tenn.), the two Conservative members of a five-person, bipartisan working group exploring a compromise on a federal bill to govern how college athletes earn money from their name, image and likeness (NIL).

Thursday’s hearing is significant because it will include college athletes as witnesses, though just one of them is a current NCAA athlete. The list includes Christina Chenault, a former UCLA track and field star who just completed her eligibility; Kaira Brown, a junior sprinter at Vanderbilt; and Sari Cureton, who recently played women’s basketball at Georgetown. The fourth witness is Martin McNair, the father of Jordan McNair, the former Maryland football player who died in 2018 after suffering heat stroke during summer workouts.

On Wednesday afternoon, Wicker’s office released a statement announcing that he won’t attend Thursday’s hearing and, instead, would be directly reaching out to athletes through a survey to solicit views on an NIL bill.

“Student athletes are the essence of college sports, and their voices should be heard in this NIL debate,” said Wicker. “Congress needs to develop legislation that protects their welfare as students and maximizes the opportunities for young men and women to participate in the college sports system. While we have had ongoing discussions with student athletes, I am now reaching out to athletes across the nation to solicit their views on what they would like to see in NIL legislation.”

Blackburn’s office also confirmed that she will not participate Thursday.

“Student-athletes should’ve been at the table since the beginning,” she said in a statement to SI. “This ‘makeup’ hearing will not move the ball forward on NIL legislation.”

The hearing’s substance could have played a role in their decisions not to participate. McNair’s presence would suggest that the hearing will at least partially focus on athlete medical care and long-term healthcare for former athletes. Democrats are aggressively pushing for any NIL bill to be broad in nature, encompassing healthcare and educational opportunities for former athletes as well as transfer rights for current players. Republicans want a more narrow bill that only targets policies governing athlete compensation.

The debate—broad vs. narrow—is at the core of ongoing negotiations among five senators who are trying to seek a compromise on legislation. Wicker and Blackburn have held meetings with Democrat counterparts Maria Cantwell (D., Wash.), Richard Blumenthal (D., Conn.) and Cory Booker (D., N.J.) in an attempt to strike a bipartisan bill as the shadow of chaos creeps over college sports.

A wild scene is just days away, college administrators say. Of the 19 states that have passed their own laws governing NIL, six of them take effect July 1.

Schools in those states are expected to operate under their state law, which not only differ from one another but also conflict with the NCAA’s own legislation, which is expected to be passed next week.

The sweeping movement to pass state NIL laws is just heating up. The surge is at a breakneck pace. According to research from SI and data from the Drake Group, the number of states that have passed laws has tripled in three months, with Texas being the latest state to join the fray.

The NCAA has spent months pleading with lawmakers to create uniformity on the issue by passing a congressional bill. But after months of negotiations, talks between the sides have recently stalled, primarily because of disagreements stemming from the breadth of an NIL bill. The scope of a federal bill took a turn when the landscape of Congress changed after the latest elections. Democrats took control of the White House and, most notably, the Senate, ushering in a new Commerce Committee chair—Wicker was out and Cantwell was in.

Six months into the new leadership, progress on legislation is slowing. The two sides have gone at least a month without exchanging new material on a bill’s language, legislative aides tell SI. Before the latest pause, they were inching toward a compromise.

There is a level of agreement on concepts specific to NIL, but the rub lies with elements extending beyond athlete compensation.

That said, concessions have been made. A revenue-sharing provision has been removed, for instance. The two sides have also agreed on some particulars related to both medical care and educational opportunities for athletes who have left college. For example, under the current proposal, schools would be required to provide an athlete medical care for five years after they leave school, instead of a lifetime. There is a similar agreement for the length of scholarships—not for a lifetime but for a certain defined number of years.

At the center of the delay, sources say, is a request from Republicans to grant the NCAA antitrust protection from retroactive and future lawsuits over NIL—something deeply opposed by Booker and Blumenthal.

Many were hoping a federal bill would begin marching through Congress in time to pass by July 1. Always a longshot, that hope died weeks ago. For some, the new deadline is the end of the year. It could be tricky. Congress is in the midst of one of its busiest work periods, stretching from June through the first week of August. The annual monthlong fall break begins then, after which lawmakers don’t return until mid-September.

The scope of a bill was at the center of last week’s NIL hearing, where witnesses included NCAA president Mark Emmert, Gonzaga coach Mark Few, two sports political professors and Howard University president Wayne Frederick.

Witnesses and lawmakers publicly revealed where they stood on the issue. Frederick, in representing low-resource schools, told lawmakers that requiring smaller schools to be responsible for medical bills and scholarships for former athletes could financially burden them to the point that they may need to cut Olympic sports and entire athletic departments. Emmert agreed. One sports political professor, Michael McCann, sided with the NCAA, encouraging senators to draft a bill with NIL first before tackling broad legislation on college athletes’ rights.

“It doesn’t mean the other topics aren’t important,” McCann said. “They should be addressed.”

Democrats want them addressed now. Blumenthal said he’d block any federal bill that was more restrictive and narrow than the strongest state law. Booker, who is not on the Commerce Committee but was granted time to speak, opened the proceedings with a passionate address to lawmakers to draft a broad NIL bill.

Cantwell suggested that any bill would need to include stipulations for athlete medical care and that such expenses, for small schools, could be financed by the richer NCAA Division I programs—a move that Emmert says was “doable.”

It might be even more doable now. A day after the hearing, news emerged that the College Football Playoff is on the path to expanding from four to 12 teams—a decision that will result in a surge in revenue. In the current format, schools annually split $475 million in CFP revenue. That number is expected to double, if not triple with the addition of eight more games.

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