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Senate NIL hearing addresses issues, yields few answers

Mark Emmert
Mark Emmert

The official name of the Senate Judiciary Committee’s hearing on Wednesday was ‘Protecting the Integrity of College Athletics’ but it was supposed to be mainly focused on name, image and likeness considerations.

South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham made clear in his opening statement his thoughts and concerns on the issue, and started down a path of more than two hours that was supposed to address that topic.

“The one thing I’m dead set on is we can’t start a bidding war for recruits,” Graham said … “We cannot allow this to turn into a bidding war and the Wild West when it comes to recruiting college athletes and how you reimburse them for their name, their likeness and their image. I see the destruction of college athletics as we know it unless we get a rein on it.”



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From there, the hearing zigged and zagged to all sorts of topics, to all sorts of grievances with the NCAA and the substance on name, image and likeness (NIL) was light.

As was similar to the recent hearing in the Commerce Committee, there was widespread support - but not total - for legislation to enact a national framework for NIL since individual state law would be too cumbersome and difficult to follow for schools across the country. State legislation could also induce prospects to attend schools in - for lack of a better term - NIL-friendy locales.

There was also considerable disagreement on some baseline ideas like whether athletes should have to spend a semester on campus before NIL deals could commence. Or whether NIL compensation should be made public or be kept private. Or whether student-athletes should be able to sign deals with companies that are in direct competition with those representing a certain school (i.e., could a student-athlete sign a deal with adidas when the school is outfitted by Nike?)

Many of the senators on the committee and especially Democrats Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut and Cory Booker of New Jersey were critical of the NCAA and seemed frustrated by the lack of movement not only on NIL but all levels of issues surrounding student-athletes.

For long stretches, the hearing veered off into questions on health care coverage for student-athletes, whether a scholarship could be revoked after one year because of injury, Covid-19 waivers that student-athletes have been asked to sign at some schools, the racial bias of current NCAA laws and more.

There were questions about a player having to sit out because of transfer (unlike coaches who can freely move from one job to the next) and Republican Mike Lee of Utah even asked NCAA President Mark Emmert, who bore the brunt of most questions throughout the hearing, about transgender issues and fairness in women’s sports.

Two senators - Booker and Lee - called the NCAA a “cartel.” George Wrighster, a former member of the NFLPA board of representatives, said it was “completely un-American” to cut off the free-market system for student-athletes when it comes to NIL deals.

When the conversation steered back to NIL, Graham had strong feelings about a national framework that needed to be developed by Congress to ensure fairness across all schools - but he also seemed confused exactly how NIL deals would work in the marketplace.

In early questions, Graham said he was concerned that alumni could engage in “bidding wars” for prospective players and that someone could give a recruit, “Five million dollars to sell cars for me.” By every indication, compliance offices, the NCAA or a third-party independent board would review all NIL deals to make sure no pay-for-play schemes were being undertaken or recruiting inducements were being handed out.

The South Carolina senator later admitted his state is nuts for college football and so national guidelines will be crucial to ensure fair play in NIL.

“You’re going to unleash holy Hell on the college athletes if you don’t have some way to control people willing to buy a player to come to a school,” Graham said.

The hearing meandered for more than two-and-a-half hours into a lengthy discussion about sports betting and match fixing, a long way away from the opening statement by Graham on name, image and likeness.

At least one state law on NIL goes into effect in less than a year, Florida’s in July 2021. National guidelines through legislation were recommended by panelists on Wednesday, as many in Congress are still deliberately contemplating what next steps would be most prudent.

NIL is coming to college sports, almost assuredly. In what manner is still to be determined.