A prominent group of Senate Democrats — including the party’s vice presidential nominee, Kamala Harris — is backing a wholesale federal overhaul of America’s college sports industry as coronavirus concerns push 2020’s football season into chaos.
The Big Ten and Pac-12, two of college football’s five wealthiest and most powerful conferences, scrapped their fall seasons this week and imperiled tens of millions of dollars for their member schools. But the SEC, ACC and Big 12 — conferences with footholds in virus-racked Southern states — are pressing ahead with plans to kick off in late September, with support from President Donald Trump and leading Republicans.
Advertised as a “College Athletes Bill of Rights,” the Democratic outline of forthcoming legislation proposes paying student-athletes through revenue-sharing agreements with athletic associations, conferences and schools that make money off college sports. The proposal also would allow athletes to pitch products or services for their own profit, provide them with “commensurate lifetime scholarships” and create enforceable health and safety standards that would include new financial assistance for sports-related injuries and illnesses.
“The time has come for change,” New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker said. “We have an opportunity to do now what should have been done decades ago — to step in and provide true justice and opportunity for college athletes across the country.”
It’s not yet a formal bill, but Democrats’ demands draw a bright battle line between player pay legislation floated by Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida and backed by the NCAA, major conferences and Florida schools. Rubio’s bill would allow athletes some leeway to monetize their social media followers or sign endorsement deals, under the NCAA’s watch. Democrats are suggesting a much broader approach.
The future of college sports is not only drawing more attention from Congress, it’s escalated into a full-blown national political debate. All it took was a global pandemic to tip the scales.
The dueling proposals and feuds over fall football are part of a transformative moment for a players’ rights movement that’s already winning battles in courts and state legislatures. For college sports’ reformers, the crisis offers a fresh opportunity to rebuild the infrastructure of a booming business that relies on unpaid labor, largely white decision-makers and an outsize share of Black athletes.
Nearly half of all Division I football players are Black, according to the NCAA’s demographics database. But 79 percent of university athletics directors, 82 percent of Division I head football coaches, 80 percent of the sport’s offensive coordinators, 72 percent of defensive coordinators and even 53 percent of all other assistants at Division I schools are white.
“We can’t return to business as usual — where a multibillion dollar industry lines the pockets of predominantly white executives all while majority-Black athletes can’t profit from their labor,” said Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut said.
The virus’ continued spread, plus new and evolving information about Covid-19 and its “potential serious cardiac side effects” on elite athletes prompted calls from Pac-12 medical advisers to cut off competitions. So did concerns about traveling on commercial aircraft and the nation’s still-limited capacity for frequent, rapid-turnaround testing.
Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby, on the other hand, said “opinions vary regarding the best path forward” and that the conference is comfortable with its schools’ ability to provide structured training, rigorous testing and hospital-quality sanitation.
“All of this has rolled into a moment for collegiate athletics that looks like we do not have our house in order,” said Nancy Zimpher, chancellor emeritus of the State University of New York and a member of the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics. “It has exposed our vulnerabilities, and the shift from what I think is really considered to be a public good into something that looks like a private, for-profit enterprise.”
Years of rainmaking revenue for big-time sports programs prompted a parallel rush of overspending on coaching salaries and flashy sports facilities, Zimpher said. Fragmented leadership and a complicated governance structure have also been problems.
“I think in some respects our worst dreams have come true. How could we possibly pit the financial losses of not playing football this fall against the health and safety and general welfare of our student athletes? That appears to be what it’s coming down to.”
Players are flexing their muscle, taking to social media to announce they’ve opted out of competing this fall, or begging to play while calling on schools to offer universal safety and health protocols. They’re even reviving the idea of establishing college athlete labor unions.
Democrats, in addition to their sweeping proposal to share college sports revenue with athletes, are also pitching a less-restrictive take on players’ use of their names and images than the one Rubio introduced in June. The NCAA wants federal protection from antitrust laws to set the terms of how athletes can market themselves while overriding competing state laws. Rubio’s bill, dubbed the Fairness in Collegiate Athletics Act, does just that and would require the NCAA to set rules for student-athletes by June 30, 2021, while authorizing the Federal Trade Commission to enforce them.
Democrats say formal legislation reflecting their demands will be introduced in the Senate in the coming months. Booker, Harris and Murphy are backing the framework alongside Sens. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, Ron Wyden of Oregon, Mazie Hirono and Brian Schatz of Hawaii, independent Bernie Sanders of Vermont, and Chris Van Hollen of Maryland.
The proposal is likely to face skepticism from conservative lawmakers and could carry immense costs for colleges and universities whose athletic departments already face billions in potential losses because of the pandemic.
Public school sports programs in the NCAA’s highest-profile Football Bowl Subdivision generated roughly $8.8 billion in revenue in 2018, according to the most recent data available.
According to aggregate data maintained by the Knight Commission, those same programs spent $5 billion — nearly 60 percent of their total expenses in 2018 — on salaries and benefits for coaches and staff, in addition to overhead costs such as debt service on athletics facilities projects and equipment.
What’s resulted, Zimpher said, is “unfathomable debt.”
“This is economics at a level where you are a renter and you’ve lost your job and you can’t pay your lease,” Zimpher said. “We’ve just gotten ourselves into a really big pickle and now it’s exposed, and it’s the pressure that’s really forcing people to say ‘We can’t afford not to play.’”
Now, many schools that have punted on a fall season are exploring whether they can play football next spring.
Infections must first be brought under control for sports to restart safely, said Tara Kirk Sell, an Olympic medalist and a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. That’s particularly important in areas recording high numbers of Covid-19 cases per 100,000 residents, as well as high rates of positive tests for the virus.
“College sports, if they’re going to go forward, need to have a clear-eyed approach rather than hoping that everything will be fine,” Sell said. “Especially when it comes to contact sports like football, where I think people are realizing this is going to be really hard.”
“The more cases that you have in the community — especially in many of these states that aren’t doing contact tracing, and the tests are coming back slowly — you’re just going to have way more opportunities for those cases to end up on a team,” she said.