Sen. Richard Blumenthal said Wednesday night that the recent flurry of what he termed “outrageously astronomical” contracts for college football head coaches could end up reigniting Congressional interest in helping athletes obtain improved health-care coverage and other benefits.
In the past week, LSU, Michigan State and Penn State, respectively, have made 10-year agreements with Brian Kelly, Mel Tucker and James Franklin that have a combined total value of at least $280 million. In addition, Southern California has made a deal with Lincoln Riley that likely is just as lucrative as any of those three, if not moreso, although the private school is not required to disclose the specific terms.
“This latest round of contracts is … definitely getting attention in the Congress,” Blumenthal, D-Conn., told USA TODAY Sports. It “may give us a real opportunity to seek a bipartisan consensus for this kind of bill of rights” for college athletes.
Blumenthal and Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., introduced legislation that would have provided an array of specific benefits and protections for athletes near the end of the previous Congressional session. A number of those proposals, including a revenue-sharing plan for athletes, encountered significant resistance from schools and from Republicans. They have not reintroduced the measure this year, instead seeking to gain support from Republicans for a scaled-back version.
Asked how a bill could be put together and passed in the face of continued resistance, particularly from schools, Blumenthal said: “Let me put it this way: There are a variety of different points of leverage, such as taxes, antitrust treatment and so forth. … They’d love antitrust protection, so maybe it’s a combination of carrots and sticks.”
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The NCAA and its member conferences and schools have been lobbying for any type of federal college-sports bill to include protection from antitrust litigation, especially in the wake of this summer’s Supreme Court ruling in the Alston antitrust case. Antitrust provisions also would be the only avenue to putting any kind of brakes on coaches’ compensation.
On the tax issue, the entire college-sports industry benefits greatly from the NCAA, schools, conferences and many bowl games being set up as non-profit organizations. That shields revenue from taxation and allows donations to schools, including boosters’ donations to athletics programs, to be tax-deductible.
Blumenthal said Wednesday night that Congress is facing so many other issues as this year closes that “nothing will happen” on Capitol Hill regarding college sports in 2021, but things could change in January.
“I think we need to circle back,” Blumenthal said. “I’m just going to be really honest with you, between now and the first of the year … there just isn’t the oxygen for it. We have the National Defense Authorization Act, our defense budget. We have the continuing resolution to keep the government open. We have Build Back Better. You know, we just have so much to do this month. But at the beginning of the year, I am determined that we’ll circle back and try to do a bipartisan bill again.”
The basic tension in Congress about a college sports bill has revolved around whether it should be devoted primarily to providing a national set of regulations regarding college athletes’ ability to make money from their name, image and likeness (NIL), or whether it also should address other issues. States have passed a variety of different laws allowing college athletes to engage in NIL activities such as having endorsement deals, and the NCAA has largely removed restrictions on these dealings from its rule book, freeing athletes in states without NIL laws.
While the NCAA wants protection from antitrust lawsuits, Blumenthal, Booker, Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., and other Democrats, including Senate Commerce Committee chair Maria Cantwell, Wash., have said they want greater health coverage for athletes, both while they are in school and after they are done playing sports. Booker and Blumenthal also have discussed the need for stricter and more enforceable safety standards for athletes. Murphy has introduced a bill that would give athletes collective bargaining rights.
In response, schools — particularly those with less money for college sports than those in the Power Five conferences — have expressed concern about the financial impacts of those types of changes.
On Wednesday night, Blumenthal pointed at the imbalance in schools’ treatment of coaches, through the types of contracts that have been signed recently, and their treatment of athletes, even with changes in recent months regarding name, image and likeness activities and schools’ new ability under the Alston ruling to provide cash incentives for academic performance.
“You just want to say there’s something wrong with this picture when … the coaches have, guaranteed, 10 million bucks a year … if they’re fired, win or lose, good season or bad, no matter how they perform, whereas the guys on the field who are giving their blood, sweat and tears are guaranteed nothing.”
Blumenthal emphasized that he is not judging coaches on what they are paid “if they can command that amount. The schools are big boys. Nobody’s holding a gun to their head to pay this amount. The board of trustees ultimately may be held accountable for approving it. But my gripe is the treatment of athletes. …
“I don’t think Congress should be setting compensation caps. What we should be doing is requiring fairness in treatment of athletes.”
Follow colleges reporter Steve Berkowitz on Twitter @ByBerkowitz