Federal bill pushes for unrestricted NIL endorsements for NCAA athletes

A new federal bill introduced Thursday would make it illegal for the NCAA or other college sports associations to place any restrictions on the type or size of endorsements deals that college athletes could sign in the future.

The bill, co-authored by Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Connecticut) and Rep. Lori Trahan (D-Massachusetts), is the latest in a series of proposed national laws that aim to help college athletes make money and reform a multi-billion-dollar college sports industry that several members of Congress believe is fundamentally unfair. This proposal is the only option to date that doesn't provide any means for Congress, the NCAA or any other governing body to regulate what products athletes can endorse.

"Big-time college athletics look no different than professional leagues, and it's time for us to stop denying the right of college athletes to make money off their talents," said Murphy, who said he sees the NCAA's current rules as a civil rights issue. "If predominantly white coaches and NCAA executives can have unfettered endorsement deals, why shouldn't predominantly black athletes be afforded the same opportunity?"

The new bill also specifically prohibits the NCAA or conferences from doing anything that would prevent athletes from organizing under collective representation to sell their licensing rights as a group. This type of group licensing is typically needed to bargain for media rights, jersey sales and items like video games, such as the college football video game that EA Sports announced its plan to revive earlier this week.

The NCAA has so far been opposed to the possibility that athletes could organize for any type of group licensing activity.

NCAA president Mark Emmert and other college sports leaders have asked Congress for help in creating national uniform rules that dictate how athletes can profit from their names, images and likenesses (NIL). Those leaders want the ability to create "guardrails" that they say would keep NIL payments from becoming thinly veiled salaries that cross the line between amateurism and professional sports.

Murphy and Trahan, who played volleyball at Georgetown, believe the NCAA crossed the line into professionalism long ago.

"As a former Division I athlete, I'm all too familiar with the NCAA's business model that for decades has utilized the guise of amateurism to justify obscene profitability while student athletes have struggled to get by," Trahan said in a statement Thursday.

Murphy told ESPN that he thinks it is unlikely that Congress will be able to act on college sports legislation in the first six months of the year. That makes it likely that some state NIL laws will go into effect before a national plan is in place.

Florida has already passed a law that will make current NCAA rules illegal in the state starting July 1. Four other states are also considering legislation that would go into effect at the same time.

The NCAA has argued that a variety of state laws, many of which have unique differences, would create a chaotic environment where schools were operating under different rules and prospective athletes might be choosing their schools based on which state gives them the best chance to cash in on endorsement deals.

The association declared its intentions to change its own rules in October 2019. However, they missed a self-imposed deadline to vote on proposed changes last month and it's not clear when they will move forward. The most recent NCAA proposal was significantly more restrictive for athletes than most of the state and federal legislative options.

"I wasn't going to support what the NCAA did, so I'm not shedding any tears over the NCAA's decision to delay," Murphy told ESPN. "They were never going to be able to handle this. I think there's an argument to be made for letting the different state laws take effect so we can see if the sky falls like the NCAA says it will."

The bill presented by Murphy and Trahan will be considered alongside other legislation that presents a spectrum of options for how deeply involved Congress will become in shaping the future of college sports.

Democratic Senators Cory Booker and Richard Blumenthal proposed a bill in December that calls for wide-sweeping changes that go beyond compensation and NIL rights. Republican Senators Roger Wicker and Marco Rubio have each proposed bills that provide more leeway for NCAA leaders to determine what restrictions are necessary to preserve amateurism in college sports. Rep. Anthony Gonzalez (R-Ohio) has also introduced a detailed proposal that would open the door for NIL payments while creating some restrictions on what types of products athletes can endorse.

Murphy and Trahan's bill also states that any services that a school or conference provides to athletes to assist them in making the most of their NIL potential must be available to all athletes under their purview. In other words, if a school hires a consultant to help build the brands of its football stars, all other athletes at the school must get the same opportunity.

The bill also calls for an annual report, funded by the federal government, to assess how much money college athletes are making from endorsement deals and breaking down that data by race, gender and sport to analyze the marketplace.