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Senate hearing highlights rift between Democrats, Republicans on student-athlete rights

Gonzaga men’s basketball coach Mark Few testifies about rights for collegiate athletes before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation last week in Washington, D.C.  (Orion Donovan Smith / The Spokesman-Review)

WASHINGTON – A week after a Senate panel showed bipartisan agreement on the need to let collegiate athletes earn money while in school, current and former student-athletes and a father who lost his son to a deadly college football practice urged the senators Thursday to expand the scope of a bill to ensure athletes’ rights to health care, quality education and more.

Senate Commerce Committee Chairwoman Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., convened the panel to highlight the perspectives of athletes after Gonzaga men’s basketball coach Mark Few and several other witnesses urged Congress in a June 9 hearing to pass a law allowing athletes to be compensated for the use of their name, image and likeness – referred to as “NIL” rights.

“Congress cannot pass an NIL law that just ignores the rights of students,” Cantwell said. “It also has to hear, I believe, about the experiences in health care and scholarship that make important rights issues so central to this debate.”

Despite pressure on lawmakers to set a national standard for NIL rights before a wave of state laws creates a chaotic patchwork of rules, Thursday’s hearing suggested Democrats and Republicans remain far apart on the details of federal NIL legislation. All but one of the committee’s GOP members refused to attend, with top Republican Roger Wicker of Mississippi announcing Wednesday he would instead send a survey to solicit feedback from collegiate athletes.

The four witnesses, all called by Democrats, included former UCLA track and field star Christina Chenault, current Vanderbilt University sprinter Kaira Brown and former Georgetown University basketball player Sari Cureton. They called on Congress to pass legislation that would set national standards not only for NIL rights but also to improve athletes’ educational opportunities and protect their health and safety.

“I would encourage this committee to … look at this issue as a civil rights matter,” Cureton said. “Although name, image and likeness is a pressing matter, the issues relating to health and safety still deserve ample attention. Because, if not for the physical sacrifices of student athletes, this industry would not exist.”

Martin McNair, the father of former University of Maryland offensive lineman Jordan McNair, who died after suffering heat stroke during football practice in 2018, also pressed for more oversight of schools’ health and safety standards.

“How can we support student athletes getting paid when we can’t keep them safe?” McNair asked .

Two Washington State University athletes also submitted written testimony. Dallas Hobbs, a WSU defensive lineman, emphasized that a patchwork of state laws could not only hurt some schools’ ability to recruit top prospects – a point Few emphasized a week earlier – but also restrict athletes’ freedom.

“I am in a state that doesn’t have a NIL law so athletes like myself and others in Washington will be without the same freedoms that athletes in NIL states have,” Hobbs wrote, warning that the wave of state laws “will create a major divide in college athletics and chang(e) the experiences of the student-athletes.”

While college sports generate billions in revenue each year for schools and the National Collegiate Athletics Association, NCAA rules prohibit the athletes from financially benefiting while in school. But laws granting NIL rights in five states are set to take effect July 1, with more than a dozen other state laws close behind, though Washington is not one of them.

In addition to earning money for endorsement deals and selling merchandise, the state NIL laws will let collegiate athletes get paid for leading sports camps and other events. Kelis Barton, a WSU soccer player, said in her written testimony a national NIL law could help her support herself and earn money doing what she loves rather than “working at the local Taco Bell.”

“As an entrepreneur at heart, I love using my assets to also financially support myself,” Barton said. “What better way than teaching the sport that I do every single day? I have not been able to advertise using my name or university when looking to teach and train young players with a similar dream to mine all because of NIL rights.”

The committee’s Republican and Democratic members have introduced several different bills to address NIL rights and a range of other protections for student athletes, with Democrats pushing for more sweeping measures that would require a revamped revenue-sharing system for larger schools to help smaller ones provide a uniform set of health, safety and education benefits. At last week’s hearing, NCAA President Mark Emmert told Cantwell he was open to such an arrangement, something Cantwell highlighted as a major development.

In an interview after the hearing, Cantwell said any bill should include provisions to ensure schools continue to provide health care and scholarships even after students lose their athletic eligibility, but she stopped short of demanding all of the measures some Democrats have called for, including proposals that would require schools to share sports revenue directly with athletes.

The biggest sticking points between the committee’s Democrats and Republicans, Cantwell said, are legal protections that would prevent lawsuits over the NCAA’s prohibition on athlete pay and the question of how broadly a federal law should preempt state laws and prevent them from going further to protect athletes’ rights. While the chances of Congress passing an NIL law before July are essentially nil, Cantwell said she hopes “we’ll have something to say before the July recess.”

“It’s hard, because any time you’re down to the legal issues about anti-trust and preemption, they can be pretty sticky issues,” she said. “I hope that we can put some kind of framework out and get people to say, yes, we’re very close on this.”