‘Clock running’ on congress’ NCAA legislation

Sports

WASHINGTON — Sen. Ted Cruz said Tuesday there is a 50-50 chance of Congress passing legislation that would provide antitrust protection and regulation to college athletics in the U.S. by the end of the year.

Cruz (R-Texas) lowered his previous estimate of 60-40 from last fall of a bill getting through before the election in November, saying he and his counterparts are running out of time.

“The clock is running,” Cruz said after overseeing a panel on the topic that included former Alabama coach Nick Saban. “It’s not too late to get it done, but we’re getting close to it being too late to get it done. I still think there are elements there of getting bipartisan agreement. We just have not been able to get everyone to the table to sign off.”

Cruz said something will eventually get done to standardize how athletes can be compensated for their names, images and likenesses and to give the NCAA and conferences the ability to govern college sports without the constant threat of lawsuits and state laws undercutting their authority.

The gathering was not an official hearing, but going on at the same time in the House was the 12th hearing on college sports on Capitol Hill since 2020. This one was held in front of the Committee on Education and the Workforce and was focused on the possibility of college athletes joining unions.

But Cruz’s roundtable with Saban, Atlantic Coast Conference Commissioner Jim Phillips and Alabama athletic director Greg Byrne stole the spotlight. Sens. Jerry Moran (R-Kansas) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) also attended.

Moran and Blumenthal put forth a bipartisan proposal for a college sports bill last summer, but like several efforts before and after it has gone nowhere.

“Mostly we would tell each other, ‘We’re just this close to getting something done,’ but it’s been going on a long time,” Moran said, pleading for stakeholders to provide feedback on what they can give and take. “This is the moment to strike. Please help us close that gap and get this done.”

NCAA President Charlie Baker has encouraged membership to act on its own, putting forth a proposal in December that would create a new tier of Division I where schools would be required to pay some of their athletes.

The Big Ten and Southeastern Conference, the two wealthiest and most powerful conferences, formed a joint advisory committee earlier this year to try to tackle the issues facing college sports.

Nick Saban, who led Alabama football to six national titles in 17 seasons, said the current landscape shaped by NIL funds and loosened transfer rules contributed to his decision to retire at 72.

“All the things I believed in for all these years, 50 years of coaching, no longer exist in college athletics,” Saban said. “It’s whoever wants to pay the most money, raise the most money, buy the most players is going to have the best opportunity to win. And I don’t think that’s the spirit of college athletics, and I don’t think it’s ever been the spirit of what we want college athletics to be.”

Also taking part in the roundtable were NIL attorney Darren Heitner, Collective Association president Russell White, as well as current women’s college basketball player Haley Cavinder and sister Hanna, a former player.

Other senators cycled through, offering concerns, such as Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) saying he believes the status quo is “going to destroy the student-athlete as we know it.”

Byrne warned that even a school as prestigious as Alabama may have to cut non-revenue-generating sports, depending on what the final answer is for paying athletes.

Cruz, citing the comments made by commissioners of conferences made up of Historically Black Colleges and Universities and concerns about Division II and Division III programs shuttering, does not believe there’s as much interest in classifying college athletes as employees as there was six months ago.

“There are very few people advocating for student-athletes as employees now,” Cruz said. “I think that makes it easier when you have widespread agreement that that’s the wrong solution to have some clarity on that point.”

Just last week, Dartmouth men’s basketball players voted to join a union and several active antitrust lawsuits are challenging NCAA compensation caps and whether athletes should have employee status.

Baker said last month that Congress needed to act to protect what he described as the “95 percent” of athletes whose ability to play college sports would be endangered by a court ruling or regulatory decision declaring them as employees of their schools. The NCAA and Power Five conferences spent a combined $2.97 million on lobbying efforts in 2023, according to records reviewed by The Associated Press.

Work has been ongoing for several years to figure out a solution for what Cruz called the current “Wild West” state of college athletics and the NCAA.

Cruz, who last summer introduced draft legislation to tackle the problems, prefers empowering the NCAA to oversee the landscape rather than a new governmental or quasi-governmental agency.

Cruz said he felt urgency to pass something sooner than later and found agreement on that point among colleagues given the current state of confusion in college sports.

“Nobody really likes the direction we’re heading in right now,” Moran said. “I think we’re close. We’re really close, and we need to get it done.”

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