The Senate Commerce Committee’s top Republican announced Wednesday that he will not participate in a hearing set for Thursday on college sports issues, including athletes’ ability to make money from their name, image and likeness (NIL).
Sen. Roger Wicker of Mississippi said that he will, instead, undertake a survey of college athletes that he said will be designed to solicit their views on what they would like to see in NIL legislation. He also specifically took issue with the timing and manner in which committee chair Maria Cantwell, D- Wash., organized the hearing, which will come eight days after another hearing by the committee on this topic.
“Student athletes are the essence of college sports, and their voices should be heard in this NIL debate,” Wicker said in a statement. “Congress needs to develop legislation that protects their welfare as students and maximizes the opportunities for young men and women to participate in the college sports system. While we have had ongoing discussions with student athletes, I am now reaching out to athletes across the nation to solicit their views on what they would like to see in NIL legislation.”
Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., is skipping Thursday's hearing about college sports issues due to his displeasure with Democrats. (Photo: JACK GRUBER, USA TODAY)
The survey was sent to athletes in all three of the NCAA's competitive divisions, through their respective conferences.
Wicker’s announcement fully crystallizes a divide among committee members about how Congress should address a patchwork of state laws related to NIL that will start taking effect July 1. It also raises questions about whether lawmakers can reach agreement on a bill that could be passed before the August recess, which only adds to the current uncertainties surrounding college sports.
At least 19 states have passed laws related to NIL, including eight in which the measure will either take effect July 1 or could be put into place by schools at any time. The NCAA Division I Council, those schools’ top day-to-day policy-making group, has meetings next week at which it could vote on proposed rules changes that would dramatically loosen athletes’ ability to have endorsement deals, monetize their social-media followings or get paid for signing autographs.
But some of the state laws conflict with current and/or proposed NCAA rules. And Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby has said that his conference and others in the Power Five have been advised by their attorneys to wait for the Supreme Court’s ruling in the Alston antitrust case before taking any votes on NIL rules. The ruling, which could come as early as Thursday, may address the level of legal deference to which the NCAA is entitled in making athlete-compensation rules.
The NCAA is urgently seeking federal legislation that not only would explicitly nullify state laws, but also include a variety of other considerations, including protection from antitrust lawsuits related to athlete compensation. That is prompting some in Congress to demand that NCAA schools provide greater benefits for athletes, especially regarding health care. In addition, several Democratic senators and at least one Republican have expressed doubt about giving the NCAA the legal protection it wants.
Last Wednesday, the committee held its first hearing on NIL and related matters since Cantwell became chair following the Democrats regaining control of the Senate.
During that session, Wicker said health, safety and educational issues “deserve deep and thoughtful consideration. … But, unlike NIL, these issues are not subject to a July 1st deadline.” He called for a “focused bill on NIL on a much faster timeline.” In addition, Wicker noted that health, safety and educational issues also fall under the jurisdiction of other Senate committees.
Cantwell and other Democrats primarily centered on non-NIL matters in their comments and questions for a panel of six witnesses: NCAA president Mark Emmert, Gonzaga men’s basketball coach Mark Few, Howard University President Wayne Frederick, law professors Michael McCann and Matthew Mitten and ESPN college sports analyst Rod Gilmore, also an attorney.
At the hearing’s conclusion, Cantwell said the committee would have another hearing “in the future” that would include a panel of athletes. A day later, the Commerce Committee announced Thursday’s hearing.
Specifically, Wicker is unhappy about Cantwell scheduling the hearing with a week’s notice, and about whom committee Democrats initially chose as witnesses, a Senate aide told USA TODAY Sports. The person spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the situation. With Senate seats split 50-50, the Commerce Committee has agreed that a representative of each party will select half of witness panels for hearings.
Another Senate aide who spoke to USA TODAY Sports said Republican members of the committee were given the opportunity to name witnesses and declined to do so. The person spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the situation.
Although Cantwell talked about calling athletes, the Democrats’ two initial selections for Thursday’s hearing included someone who isn't an athlete. They chose Martin McNair, whose son, Jordan, was an offensive lineman for the University of Maryland football team when he died after collapsing during an offseason training session.
During a Commerce Committee mark-up hearing on unrelated matters Wednesday, Wicker specifically cited Cantwell's set-up of Thursday's hearing, saying: "When my friends on the Democratic side breach the rules, I let them know my feeling on that. And there will be a hearing later on this week that I will not participate in because I did not feel the chair had accommodated the Republicans in that issue."
Wicker's survey asks athletes to rate the importance of several factors in their college selection: Health care/coverage, scholarship availability/financial aid, reputation of athletics program, quality of athletics facilities, possibility of going pro. It also asks whether athletes have transferred.
The rest is devoted to NIL. It asks:
►Whether athletes know whether the state in which their school is located soon will allow NIL compensation.
►How important would having the ability to make money from their NIL have been to their college choice.
►Do they know any non-athlete classmates who are being compensated for their NIL.
►Have they been denied compensation or foregone any opportunities for compensation because of NCAA rules?
►If their state passed a law allowing college athletes to make money from their NIL, how likely would they be to look for opportunities to do so.
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