Two Democratic senators, Cory Booker and Richard Blumenthal, have co-authored a new bill that could change the layout of college athletics forever by kicking the NCAA’s teeth in and forcing them to start taking care of college athletes, instead of running them ragged into the ground for enormous profits that the athletes never get to see. The bill, which was proposed on Thursday, ESPN reports, would essentially police college sports and create provisions and safety nets for athletes while also doing away with the NCAA’s archaic ruling that a college athlete cannot accept money or gifts in any form for their work. The rule is so strict and outlandish that athletes have previously gotten into trouble for accepting free meals from restaurants.
The proposal would involve taking away much of the power from the universities and transferring it over to a Commission on College Athletics composed of members appointed by the President. “They would hire a staff to resolve disputes, suggest changes to rules and investigate wrongdoing with the power to subpoena witnesses. This group, which would receive $50 million in taxpayer funding for its first two years, would take on a lot of the work of policing college sports,” according to ESPN.
Why does any of this matter? Universities that have teams that compete under the NCAA umbrella (SUNY Albany, Ohio State, Notre Dame, Penn State, USC, to name a few) generate millions of dollars in revenue from the free labor of athletes. In exchange for playing on a Division I team, student-athletes get scholarships but cannot get part-time jobs to cover the numerous other expenses that come with school in the same way every other student can. The captain of the basketball team can’t work the front desk of her university library for a few dollars an hour even though the school makes thousands off of her image and the tickets she sells to games. Looking right at you Oregon and Connecticut! In any other industry labor without compensation would be a lawsuit and a half but because students are getting an education, they are told to shut up and accept it.
Cory Booker would certainly know about this issue rather intimately, considering he attended two NCAA Division I schools and grew up close to a third in New Jersey. “I feel like the federal government has a role and responsibility that we’ve been shirking in terms of protecting athletes and ensuring their safety,” Booker said in a statement to ESPN, “I just really believe there is an urgency here that has not been met for decades and decades. We need to step up and do something about it.”
The bill is expansive, covering the potential for students to sign endorsement deals to revenue sharing, and proposes that universities contribute to a medical trust fund that would ensure students’ care when they inevitably become injured through their sport.
The U.S. Department of Health & Human Services would create standards of care related to health, wellness and safety. Those standards would address concussion protocols, sexual assault, long-term injuries and more. Any schools that violate the standards would be subject to fines of up to 30% of their annual athletics revenue, which equates to tens of millions of dollars for Power 5 schools.
The trouble with the bill being so thorough and pro-student is that it has to be approved by lawmakers who can be easily swayed by some light lobbying from wealthy boosters who have the time, money, and political muscle to stop the bill before it gets anywhere. But in an attempt to be somewhat optimistic, I will choose to believe that with one or two compromises athletic programs can adjust to seeing athletes as people and not as products. Eventually.