The chairman of a powerful group of Republicans in the U.S. House called on the NCAA to allow college athletes to profit from their name, image and likeness, joining a growing chorus of influential people advocating for major change to the way colleges treat student-athletes and threatening legislation if the NCAA does not make changes quickly.
Rep. Mark Walker, from Greensboro, wrote that current NCAA rules regarding the name, image and likeness of college athletes "strips them of their identity and sovereignty over their public image."
"As with every other freedom, they don’t go away. They are just transferred to empower someone else. In this case, those publicity rights and the large wealth created by them are held tight by school athletic departments, sports conference board rooms and NCAA administrators," Walker wrote in an opinion article for The News & Observer.
Walker is chairman of the Republican Study Committee, the largest Republican caucus in the House. A three-sport letterman at Trinity Baptist College in Jacksonville, Fla., Walker and his staff have been studying the issue and considering legislative solutions since 2016 — the same year the NCAA, the ACC and the NBA moved sporting events out of North Carolina due to the passage of House Bill 2. At the time, Walker criticized the NCAA as "elitists who are attempting to extort and embarrass North Carolina for defending its citizens."
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Walker wrote in the opinion piece: "Signing a scholarship with a university should not be a moratorium on an athlete's ability to use his or her name and image, or to attain a livable wage for their talent. Instead of a model that devalues hard work and strips athletes of the rights to their own name, we need a system that encourages the dignity of work and upholds the value of personal initiative and freedom — foundations of the American idea."
Walker is not in favor of paying players, his spokesman said.
The timeline for change has sped up considerably.
Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who chaired a commission on college basketball that made recommendations to the NCAA last month, said Wednesday that college student-athletes should be allowed to profit off their name, image and likeness. Rice pointed out the vagaries of the NCAA rules late last month.
"For the life of me, I don’t understand the difference between Olympic payments and participation in Dancing With the Stars, which are allowed, and what can’t be allowed,” Rice said.
Athletes who win an Olympic medal are paid by the United States Olympic Committee and can continue to participate in NCAA events. Former Stanford swimmer Katie Ledecky earned $355,000 in medal bonuses. Notre Dame women's basketball player Arike Ogunbowale competed on Dancing With the Stars this season after hitting two game-winning shots in the Final Four. Ogunbowale will still be able to play for Notre Dame.
In 2014, the NCAA stopped requiring student-athletes to sign a release for name, image and likeness. But schools and conferences can still require it. Outside of few notable exceptions, student-athletes are not allowed to capitalize on their name, image and likeness to make money. For example, a punter at Central Florida was declared ineligible after he refused to stop selling ads on his popular YouTube page.
There is pending litigation challenging the NCAA's rules about name, image and likeness.
In 2014, the judge in the Ed O'Bannon case said that colleges must give men's basketball and football players up to $5,000 per year for use of their name, image and likeness. The 9th Circuit Court reversed that, but allowed colleges to pay a cost-of-living stipend, which many now do. In 2016, the Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal. There are other cases making their way through the court system, including a class action suit from famed attorney Jeffrey Kessler.
Now Walker, an avid Alabama Crimson Tide fan, is considering congressional action, saying there needs to be a "national dialogue on whether congressional intervention will prompt the change desperately needed to bring fairness and opportunity to student-athletes."
"If we have a system that holds wealth tightly at the very top, is fraught with corruption, is failing to provide students with opportunity or a quality education, and is stripping players of basic identity rights, isn't it time for a change?" Walker said.
"The NCAA has been given time to assuage these concerns, but has ultimately fallen short."
That conversation is already underway.
The "Olympic model" — which allows U.S. Olympians to make money off their name, image and likeness without compromising their eligibility for the Games — is one solution that has been floated by many. The U.S. Olympic Committee changed its model in 1986 to allow for professionals to compete, a change that paved the way for the 1992 men's basketball "Dream Team" and for athletes such as swimmer Michael Phelps to compete in multiple Olympic games.
Current college administrators, sports economists and former players and coaches even debated the "Olympic model" during an event at The Aspen Institute in Washington, D.C., last week.
"It's time to start having these discussions," said former Georgetown basketball coach John Thompson III. "I do think it's time we start figuring out how it should work."
"We have rights as Americans and to abrogate them because they're student-athletes is wrong," said Andy Schwarz, an economist and outspoken proponent of letting college players be compensated.
Athletes could sell their rights individually or pool their rights as teams, schools or even conferences and negotiate contracts, experts said. Clemson athletic director Dan Radakovich, a proponent of the NCAA's amateur model, said during the discussion that schools could place certain restrictions to avoid endorsements with competitors to athletic department sponsors or certain types of products.
Jay Bilas, a former Duke basketball player, current ESPN analyst and attorney, said fixing the issue is easy.
"Dr. Rice says athletes should benefit from name, image, likeness rights. But, we need to know legal parameters. Here is all we need: Athletes can profit from NLI just as any non-athlete student. Each school can determine its own parameters. Solved.," Bilas wrote on Twitter on Thursday.
Schools in the "Power 5" conferences — the most popular and powerful in college athletics — made $570 million in revenue in 2005. But huge increases in television revenue have fueled an explosion in revenue for teams in the ACC, the Big Ten, the Big 12, the Southeastern Conference and the Pac-12. The Power 5 made $2.1 billion in 2015 and are projected to make $2.8 billion by 2020, according to data from the Knight Commission.
The money has been used to increase coaching and administrator salaries and finance stadium, locker room and other facility upgrades. Some of the benefits have gone to student-athletes. The NCAA now allows schools to provide additional meals and pay student-athletes a "cost of attendance" stipend, intended to make up the difference between a scholarship and the actual cost of attending college.
"It is the talent of 500,000 unpaid athletes that fuels the NCAA's billion dollar revenue stream," Walker said. "The current student-athlete model prohibits college athletes from having financial rights to use their name, while allowing an unrestrained, tax-exempt organization to monetize their images to fill stadiums, sell memorabilia and sign multibillion dollar contracts.
"That gets at the heart of what is wrong with the way we are currently treating our college athletes."
Walker is not the only member of Congress interested in the way the NCAA does business. The Congressional Black Caucus sent a letter to NCAA President Mark Emmert on April 30, asking similar questions to the ones raised by Walker.
Among its 13 questions: "Should the NCAA allow its student athletes to benefit from a portion of the significant revenue that they help generate?"