WASHINGTON (CN) — Championing his organization as the entity best positioned to reform how college athletes are compensated, the head of the NCAA appeared Tuesday before the U.S. Senate to warn against an incoming tide of state laws that will let college athletes profit off their likenesses.
"I'm confident that there is a path forward on this issue ... that preserves what we love about college sports while creating even greater opportunities for our students," said NCAA President Mark Emmert, addressing a hearing of the Commerce Subcommittee on Manufacturing, Trade, and Consumer Protection.
Emmert did not dispute that the compensation system for student-athletes needs to change, but he warned that state legislative efforts, while well-intentioned, would make for a messy legal playing field. Instead, he said the NCAA should lead reforms, as it is in position to set up "guardrails" that will keep the arrangement from transforming the fundamental nature of how college sports operate.
Emmert pointed to a working group at his organization that is in the process of evaluating potential changes to so-called NIL rules, short for name, image and likeness. The working group is scheduled to finish its work next January, but Emmert said more information will be available about its recommendations by April.
Emmert said the NCAA might need Congress' help in achieving its goals, but Big 12 Conference Commissioner Bob Bowlsby went further, asking for a "set-aside" that would give the NCAA time to develop its own regulations.
"I believe at this point our request would be some assistance on creating a time window within which we could complete our work," Bowlsby said Tuesday.
The NCAA's tentative embrace of reforming its rules on player pay comes after California passed a landmark bill in September that would allow college athletes in the state to get paid by third parties. The legislation will not take effect until 2023 and applies only to institutions within the state.
Emmert said Tuesday the "patchwork" of various state laws could threaten the fundamental nature of college sports by giving schools in different states different rules to follow. He also said some proposed state bills could change the legal relationship between athletes and their schools, which could have potentially damaging unintended consequences.
Bowlsby said some of the state legislative efforts threaten to dirty up the notoriously cutthroat college recruiting game.
"Given the entrepreneurial nature of coaching staffs, they will find very effective ways of having third-party inducements to enroll and transfer a big part of the NIL environment," Bowlsby said. "And it's that integrity that I worry about the decline of."
But Ramogi Huma, the executive director of the National College Players Association, said concerns about how reformed NIL rules would affect competitive balance are overblown because large schools with big budgets already haul in the best recruits and win the most games.
Senator Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., was outspoken in his support for the NIL reforms, saying the conversation around college athletics is often "as antiquated as leather helmets." He said the momentum on the issue has become irreversible and that states will not hesitate to fill the void if no federal standard on the subject emerges.
"Those Florida and New Jersey and New York bills that I mentioned are on their way to passage," Blumenthal said. "If not there, in other states. So the leadership that we need in this area is very much urgent and immediate."
Representative Anthony Gonzalez, a former wide receiver for the Indianapolis Colts and Ohio State University, is working on legislation that would set a national standard for name, image and likeness rules for college athletes.
Speaking before the subcommittee on Tuesday, Gonzalez acknowledged the concerns Emmert and other college officials raised about state-by-state legislation and said a nationwide policy will help give certainty to both the NCAA and student athletes making decisions on whether to spend their college careers.
"The reality is the train has left the station on NIL," the Ohio Republican said. "It is no longer a question of if, but rather when and how. Congress must act to preserve the collegiate sports system we all know and love."