The fate of two recent rulings by the NCAA and a federal district court judge on the power of big college athletic conferences and compensation of its players may rest on the most famous deliberative body in America: the United States Congress, which, until now, has yet to speak up on the ramifications of the decisions.
In a series of interviews with ABC News, members of Congress exposed another significant rift on a prominent national issue. The difference this time? Political parties have nothing to do with it. Republicans and Democrats alike expressed either fear of or support for the growth of college sports in light of the rulings.
In the first major decision from Aug. 7, the Division I board of directors gave the five richest athletic conferences the right to set their own rules on the value of scholarships and student health insurance arrangements, among a slate of new powers. And in Oakland, California on Aug. 8, a district judge issued a 99-page ruling, commonly known as the O’Bannon ruling, arguing that the NCAA’s policy of prohibiting payments to college athletes violates antitrust laws.
Voices from all over the country have warned of intensifying the already dominant influence of big-time college sports in America, where around $16 billion is fought over annually by university administrators, the NCAA, television networks, coaching staffs and students.
“My general sense is that both of these decisions are due to the inertia and abdication of the NCAA in terms of trying to catch up with reality, in terms of what’s happened to TV revenue, marketing, merchandise, video games and everything else,” said Rep. Joe Courtney, D-Connecticut, whose district covers the University of Connecticut, a perennial basketball powerhouse. “In both instances, clinging to a model that is overtaken by events decades ago has resulted in a situation where I think it’s kind of an unstable and negative path.”
The O’Bannon ruling centers on the use of player likenesses in video games, which became a hot-button issue after former UCLA basketball player Ed O’Bannon complained of his figure being used in a video game without being compensated in any form.
“When the [O'Bannon] lawsuit was started … it was an outlier opinion. Now, it’s sort of evolved to the point where more people are accepting the fact that the athletes should get the share,” said Rep. Luke Messer, R-Indiana, a former linebacker at Division III Wabash College. “We’re not going to go back to world where money is taken out of this process. The question becomes how we best allocate those rewards.”
Few congressmen have been more active in pursuing legislation on behalf of college athletes than Rep. Joyce Beatty, D-Ohio, who presides over the third district in Ohio, home to Ohio State University, where she was formerly the senior vice president for outreach and engagement. Beatty has helped introduce two bills in Congress that address health and scholarship concerns in college athletics, including support for concussions and for athletes at risk of losing scholarships because of injuries.
To Beatty, the rulings last week are an extension of a slate of ongoing debates about the NCAA’s responsibility in protecting the livelihood of students.
“It sounds like [the NCAA] has been listening to some of the things we’ve been saying in Congress,” she told ABC News. “We don’t do business the same as we did 30 or 50 years ago. I don’t think we should hold student-athletes to the exact same standards we did decades ago.”
Senators also are reacting to the two rulings. In separate statements to ABC News, Sens. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, and Bill Nelson, D-Florida, agreed it’s time for the NCAA to be more accountable for the financial well-being of its most prized athletes.
“While recent rulings have shaken the foundation of the NCAA, we should seize this opportunity to examine how we prioritize and reward work … in our nation’s colleges and universities,” Brown said. “I stand in solidarity with all NCAA athletes to ensure they get the education, health care and support they deserve.
Nelson struck a more personal tone in advocating for the players.
“So many of these players come from families that don’t have a lot of money. Many of them don’t have the same opportunities that others do,” he said. “I think they should be given stipends, especially if they’re contributing to the financial well-being of the university.
Yet as with the rest of the congressional agenda, a clear division exists, this time between those supporting player compensation and big conference autonomy, and those who believe the rulings send big time college sports even further down the financial rabbit hole.
“There’s bound to be a way for us to address the problem without making broad rules,” said Rep. Bradley Byrne, R-Alabama. “The vast majority of college administrators and coaches are dealing with students for whom their college experience is a lot more than just playing sports.”
If the legal system usurps the authority of university executives, Byrne said, “we start destroying what’s been a real strength of America, with the best higher education system in the world.”
“I think it’s going to be the end of college athletics as we see it,” said Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tennessee.
Roe, along with Byrne and Messer, sits on the Education and the Workforce Committee in Congress, responsible for overseeing much of the controversy surrounding these subjects. The committee held a hearing on May 8 to examine the possibility and consequences of college athletes unionizing.
Roe’s main concern was the fate of mid-level and smaller schools in less-wealthy conferences, in which most athletic departments barely break even. As the richer schools and athletic departments have become more independent, the nature of their participation in organized college sports has been remodeled.
“What you’ve created is a semi-pro or low-level professional league,” he added.
The debate over the rulings could result in congressional action, including an antitrust exemption for the NCAA in negotiating with universities. What’s likelier is hearings and floor discussion on the rulings, particularly in a Congress that struggles to debate and act on even the most boilerplate issues.
“I’ve certainly been trying to talk it up with some of my colleagues. … I just don’t see any appetite to weigh into this among majority members,” Courtney said. “The outcome is chaotic in terms of where things are headed.”
“It’s an important cultural issue … but my hope is that it gets resolved by the private parties,” Messer added. “If Congress has to intervene, it’ll be because the NCAA has failed to intervene.”
To Rep. Byrne, mere discussion of and attention to the O’Bannon and Big Five rulings among Congress serves the right purpose.
“I think that’s probably the most important role we can play,” he said.
Pushing federal action after the decisions could have a counterproductive effect on the triangular relationship between universities, the NCAA, and Congress. Interference by the House or Senate may actually impede what all parties hope are smoother negotiations between athletic conferences, athletes and the NCAA.
What could be at stake is something more symbolic and morally urgent than a $5,000 stipend awarded to players used in NCAA-sanctioned video games: the two rulings could be a slippery slope leading to bigger, more expansive rewards for the athletes and schools best positioned to benefit from them. Post-O’Bannon, the use of the term “student-athlete” might effectively be a smoke screen, a way to disguise serious threats to the structure of higher education in America.
“We love our sports in this country, but it’s gotten a little crazy,” Roe said.