One decade ago, NCAA control over the rights of unpaid college athletes was so rigid that a hot topic at its annual rules meeting was whether to allow cream cheese as a supplement to the dry bagels afforded athletes as an approved snack.
Today, the NCAA is largely sidelined, as those same athletes cash in on name, image and likeness (NIL) deals. Meanwhile, discussions over widening the types of compensation available for the workers who power billion-dollar broadcast packages, and who undergird programs that bring prestige and revenue to colleges and universities of all sizes, are getting louder.
In just over a year, NIL reforms a decade in the making—through a slow crescendo of courtroom and legislative setbacks for the NCAA—have upended centralized governance of collegiate sports, creating a dynamic landscape of policy and financial innovations that vary by state, college or university, and even specific athletic programs.
While some cheer a diminished role for the NCAA, thoughtful voices from schools large and small, coaches and athletes, and lawmakers from both parties are looking for opportunities to bring national standards to NIL and recruitment policies. The goal of these efforts should not only be clarity to the athletes, schools and third-party advocates trying to make sense—and dollars—in this space, but also equity, longevity and a sustainable set of incentives.
So far, there are two parallel courses of action. Many institutions are pushing the 2021 NCAA interim guidelines. Their hope is that these hastily adopted, legally fragile guidelines provide some framework for inducements and pay-for-play scenarios. While instructive, how or if these rules can be enforced remains to be seen.
That leaves the second course: the promise of federal government action as a more durable, long-term solution. Several pieces of legislation are being mulled, the most promising of which is the College Athlete Bill of Rights (CABOR) introduced by Senators Cory Booker of New Jersey and Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut.
While many NIL bills set some framework for rules and reporting, unique in this legislation is a focus on uniform NIL rules and guarantees of education access in the case of injury or loss of scholarship. These provisions acknowledge that many college athletes will earn little to no NIL compensation, as well as reinforcing the basic tenet of the college athlete—obtaining a degree. CABOR also addresses longstanding issues of health care access, including mental health assistance.
This legislation also would establish a “Commission on College Athletics” for the benefit of all college athletes regardless of whether they receive a scholarship—including essential Title IX monitoring and reporting. This latter issue is critical given ongoing gender inequities, and new threats including a Supreme Court challenge by Michigan State University to weaken the law.
The CABOR plan is a good first step in filling the void left by the NCAA. Let’s seize this moment to ensure that for the next decade, we are focused on how to help grow equity and opportunity, and promote robust athlete educational outcomes in a fast-evolving college sports marketplace.
Julie Sommer, a Seattle attorney who serves on The Drake Group’s board of directors, is a former All-American swimmer at the University of Texas and past U.S. National Team member.