Under the Dome

‘That’s not the answer’: NCAA made wrong call on name and image rights, Burr says

Sen. Richard Burr on Thursday criticized the NCAA for its recent announcement that it would open the door to allowing college athletes to profit off their name, image and likeness — and defended himself against “ignorant” critics.

Burr, a North Carolina Republican who played defensive back at Wake Forest in the 1970s, created an online firestorm earlier this week when he said he’d bring forth legislation taxing the value of scholarships if players were to “cash in.”

“If college athletes are going to make money off their likenesses while in school, their scholarships should be treated like income. I’ll be introducing legislation that subjects scholarships given to athletes who choose to “cash in” to income taxes,” Burr tweeted on Oct. 29, attracting more than 33,000 comments online, many of them blistering.

Sen. Chris Murphy, a Connecticut Democrat, also balked at Burr’s taxation idea, which would only apply to athletes who collected outside income and not to all scholarship athletes.

“Has he met any of these kids?” Murphy said this week. “I think the tide is firmly moving against Senator Burr’s philosophy on this topic.”

On Thursday, in comments to McClatchy, Burr brushed off the criticism.

“It doesn’t bother me,” Burr said. “I didn’t expect anybody to jump out and support me because it shows how ignorant everybody is of the issue. Most people don’t know that there’s no tax consequences of scholarships or what the value of scholarships are. Not even the athletes know the value of a scholarship.”

Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C. Alex Brandon AP

The NCAA currently prohibits athletes from using their name, image and likeness to earn money while in college, but its Board of Governors voted this week to allow athletes “to benefit from the use of their name, image and likeness in a manner consistent with the collegiate model.” Now each of NCAA divisions, including the high-profile Division I, to work on their own rules.

The decision follows California Gov. Gavin Newsom signing of Fair Pay To Play Act in late September, making his the first state to allow college athletes to use their names to earn money. The law, which would allow players to sign endorsement deals or be paid to sign autographs or coach at clinics, goes into in 2023. Several other states are considering similar legislation.

“The NCAA didn’t think through at all what they did. It’s time for the universities to voice some opposition to it or support for it,” Burr said, who added that his status as one of two current U.S. senators to play football on a scholarship at a major college gave him credibility on the issue.

Burr lettered at Wake Forest in 1974 and ‘75. He suffered a knee injury and missed the 1976 season, but returned for a few games in 1977. Sen. Cory Booker, a New Jersey Democrat, played football at Stanford.

“I thought we were trying to clean up money in college athletics and the NCAA has decided rather than fight what California did, let’s just roll over and say we’re going to do it everywhere,” Burr said. “That’s not the answer.”

College sports' funding

College sports generated $14 billion in revenue last year, according to the Department of Education.

Only 10% of universities make money on intercollegiate athletics, Burr insisted, and “most of that is reinvested into the sports programs.”

“If you change the funding model of college sports, the loser of this, at the end of the day, is going to be Title IX women’s sports that the universities are mandated by law to provide, which means they’re going to begin to cut men’s slots and drastically change the women’s slots.”

Title IX, as it applies to college athletics, requires that men and women be provided equitable opportunities, scholarships and treatment, including facilities and support services.

Proponents of allowing college athletes to profit off their name say that Title IX would not apply since the school is not providing any additional benefits athletes. Some critics warn that money that athletic departments could see a loss in revenue if some of that money is diverted straight to athletes.

Members of Congress react

Rep. Mark Walker, a Greensboro Republican, has introduced legislation in the U.S. House that would stop the NCAA from limiting athletes’ rights to their name, image and likeness.

“We don’t believe that the student-athletes should be employees of the university. Who is asking that? That’s a smoke and mirror misdirection there,” Walker said at a Capitol Hill round table on the issue earlier this month.

“All we’re saying is allow these student athletes to have access to the free market like every other citizen does.”

Sen. Thom Tillis, a North Carolina Republican, said that college athletes, many of whom won’t collect a professional paycheck in sports, should have an opportunity to capitalize on their fame.

“You may have a hometown hero in high school and now he’s going off to college and you’ve got a sporting goods store or somebody else that wants to have them come back and sign autographs and pay them a couple hundred dollars. That’s prohibited right now — and that doesn’t make sense,” Tillis said.

Murphy said the current push for name, image and likeness rights both solves and creates problems and added it is not a final solution. He said he is talking with Republican Sens. Mitt Romney of Utah and Marco Rubio of Florida about “broader efforts to help all student-athletes.”

Romney warned the NCAA earlier this month that Congress would act on behalf of student-athletes.

“I think we’re a long way from determining how athletes will receive remuneration,” Romney said when asked about Burr’s tweet. “We’ll see what actually develops before, I think, we put in place a new tax policy."

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Brian Murphy covers North Carolina’s congressional delegation and state issues from Washington, D.C., for The News & Observer, The Charlotte Observer and The Herald-Sun. He grew up in Cary and graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill. He previously worked for news organizations in Georgia, Idaho and Virginia. Reach him at 202.383.6089 or bmurphy@mcclatchydc.com.
Emma Dumain covers Congress and congressional leadership for McClatchy DC and the company’s newspapers around the country. She previously covered South Carolina politics out of McClatchy’s Washington bureau. From 2008-2015, Dumain was a congressional reporter for CQ Roll Call.