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House committee votes to approve college athletics bill aiming to avoid athlete employment

House committee votes to approve college athletics bill aiming to avoid athlete employment

WASHINGTON — On Thursday, in a wood-paneled room on Capitol Hill, college leaders struck their biggest victory yet here.

Five years into their fruitless lobbying effort for congressional legislation, a college athletics bill is now one step away from a vote from a full chamber of the United States Congress.

Members of the House Committee on Education and the Work Force voted Thursday along party lines, 23-16, to advance a Republican-backed bill dubbed “Protecting Student Athletes' Economic Freedom Act.” The narrowly focused, four-page bill exempts college athletes from being deemed employees — one of the most essential requests from NCAA and conference leaders who wish to avoid an athlete employment model.

To use a football analogy, the NCAA has, finally, crossed midfield in its lobbying effort — still a significant distance from the goal line but closer than it’s ever been.

The bill’s future is now in the control of House Speaker Mike Johnson and other leaders of what’s recently been an unruly chamber. The leadership can choose to let the legislation die or bring it to the floor of the House of Representatives for debate and a potential vote.

However, the bill lacks vast support from Democrats, many of whom are pro-unionization and against legislation that preempts an employment ruling from a court or the National Labor Relations Board. Both of those entities are presiding over active cases and complaints to determine if college athletes should be employees of their school or conference.

The bill likely needs to be attached to more broad legislation to gain enough bipartisan agreement, especially in a Democrat-controlled Senate, where legislation heads if it does pass the House. In a Republican-controlled House, college leaders hope the legislation can gain the necessary simple majority to pass.

A bill such as this — narrow and without any other athlete protection elements — will likely be met with scrutiny from the 100-person Senate, a chamber that despite years of laboring over the subject has yet to truly move any bipartisan legislation related to the issue.

The narrowly focused, four-page bill voted on Thursday would exempt college athletes from being deemed employees. It must still pass in Congress, though, to be enacted. (Grant Thomas/Yahoo Sports)

All of those high hurdles aside, Thursday’s committee vote is a flare of success in the NCAA and conference leadership’s costly lobbying — a pursuit that continued just this week. SEC commissioner Greg Sankey and Big Ten commissioner Tony Petitti spent Tuesday and Wednesday meeting with lawmakers here, multiple congressional sources tell Yahoo Sports.

Last week, NCAA president Charlie Baker was in town, too, along with several former and current college athletes — all of them lobbying lawmakers to prohibit athlete employment as well as grant the NCAA protection to enforce its rules by codifying the organization's recent landmark settlement.

The NCAA’s lobbying effort started in 2019 as state name, image and likeness (NIL) laws threatened its amateurism model. The effort has been a resounding failure — at least up until now. Before Thursday, a dozen congressional subcommittee hearings were held over the last five years and more than a dozen college athlete bills were introduced. None of them even advanced to discussion in front of a full Senate or House committee.

However, momentum has slowly grown within the bowels of the Capitol, buoyed recently, some believe, by the NCAA’s settlement of the House, Hubbard and Carter antitrust cases — a move that next year will usher in a new model permitting schools to share revenue with athletes.

The employment debate has now taken center stage. The possibility of athlete employment looms as a threat over the implementation and sustainability of the new revenue-sharing model, college leaders say.

There exists at least three routes in which college athletes could be deemed employees over the coming months: the Johnson case in Pennsylvania seeks minimum wage; and two complaints filed with the National Labor Relations Board could grant athletes the ability to unionize and earn salaries.

During Thursday’s debate over the bill, a partisan discussion played out between committee members over this divisive issue and complicated subject, all of them with varying answers to the vexing question: Should college athletes be employees?

“Classification of student-athletes as employees will put at risk opportunities for thousands of participants across the country,” said Rep. Bob Good (R-Va.), the lead author of the bill. “It will be much more expensive to fund and maintain sports like soccer, track, wrestling, not to mention women's sports.”

Bobby Scott (D-Va.) fired back: “The only freedom this bill protects is the Republicans’ freedom to strip varsity athletes from their rights.”

On one side of the debate are mostly Republican lawmakers, college administrators and many college athletes themselves who do not support employment. On the other: Democrats, leaders of player advocacy groups and, of course, unions themselves, as well as some players.

But as conversations have persisted over the last several months, even some Democrats have privately and publicly acknowledged the complications in athlete employment. Advocacy group leaders, like Jason Stahl of the College Football Players Association and Jim Cavale of Athletes.org, have expressed support for a non-employment collective bargaining model. And many athletes have lobbied against employment, several of them even testifying before Congress.

College leaders are resistant to an employment model for a variety of reasons.

For one, they say that such a model would result in the elimination of sports teams as schools financially work to pay player salaries and other benefits, especially to groups of athletes whose sports lose millions annually. Speaking before lawmakers in March, ACC commissioner Jim Phillips suggested that some schools could “go from 28 to six sports in one fiscal year.”

Most athletic departments, even at the highest levels, turn a profit in only two sports: football and men’s basketball. Schools use those funds to subsidize the rest of the athletic teams. Lower-resourced athletic departments, such as those at the Group of Five and FCS, often generate little to no profit in any sport and need university and state funding to stay afloat.

In a recent letter sent to lawmakers, athletes from the MAC voiced their opposition to an employment model. Last year, leaders of the NCAA’s historically black colleges — many of whom are struggling financially — penned a letter to lawmakers suggesting a shuttering of entire athletic departments if employment happened.

“If you convert all of college sports into employment, there is simply no doubt, based on math, that you will lose an enormous number of student-athlete opportunities,” Baker told lawmakers at a hearing in January. “The money is just not there. Most schools lose money on sports.”

The probability of college athletes becoming employees has both gripped much of college athletics in fear while enlivening a group that supports employment or, at the very least, collective bargaining.

On Wednesday, a day before the hearing, Paul McDonald, co-counsel in the Johnson athlete employment case, sent a letter to congressional lawmakers describing the bill as “unconstitutional” and urging them to consider his proposed amendment to the legislation.

“What’s wrong with using NCAA-mandated timesheets to fold college athletes into existing work study-style programs and pay them a reasonable, hourly wage — e.g., $15 an hour — on par with fellow students employed by colleges?” McDonald asked in an email to Yahoo Sports.

On Thursday morning, the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) released a statement strongly opposing the bill, noting that it would “deny” athletes freedoms and protections from the “big business of collegiate sports.”

“By definition, college athletes are employees under labor law,” said Ramogi Huma, the longtime executive director of the National College Players Association. “They are skilled workers in their sport and are paid scholarships. They deserve the rights afforded to them under labor laws like every other American.”

Last month, in the aftermath of the NCAA’s settlement announcement, the diverging views of Congress were fully on immediate display in statements from lawmakers on either side of the aisle.

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), for instance, urged his colleagues to pass legislation as a way to protect athletes from having their “educational benefits” degraded, presumably through employment. Meanwhile, Rep. Lori Trahan (D-Mass.), a former college volleyball player, encouraged the NCAA to avoid asking Congress to “turn back the clock” and to instead embrace a system of bargaining.

“Once again, Republicans in Congress have decided to plow forward with legislation to limit the rights of college athletes with little to no input from athletes themselves,” Trahan said in a statement released to Yahoo Sports on Thursday.

“It’s disappointing that GOP members of the Education and Workforce Committee are choosing to advance a bill targeting a hypothetical issue over the very real challenges currently facing athletes, including Title IX loopholes that hurt women and international athletes not having NIL rights. If House Republicans decide to force a vote on this partisan legislation on the floor, I will vote no, and I will continue to encourage my Democratic colleagues to do the same.”

A hearing in January before a subcommittee of the House Energy and Commerce further illustrated the widening gap even among athletes serving as witnesses. While UCLA quarterback Chase Griffin proclaimed multiple times that he and other football players “operate” already as employees, Radford volleyball player Meredith Page disagreed. Griffin released a statement Thursday in opposition to the bill.

College administrators aren’t the only ones lobbying Congress. Sandwiched between visits from Baker last week and conference commissioners this week were visits to the Capitol from The Collective Association, a group of leaders of school-affiliated booster collectives who themselves have mounted a lobbying effort opposing that of the NCAA. They are encouraging lawmakers to keep out of college sports.

But some in Congress believe they should get involved in a significant way, like Rep. Gus Bilirakis (R-Fla.), who authored an athlete compensation bill granting the NCAA a limited antitrust protection, exempting athletes as employees and implementing guardrails on NIL itself. The Bilirakis bill represents a more broad bill that could serve as a vessel for two other pieces of legislation, the one that passed Thursday and one introduced in the House Judiciary Committee. That bill, the “Protect the Benefits of Athletes and Limit Liability Act,” would grant the NCAA a safe harbor to enforce its rules.

While legislation bubbles in the Republican-controlled House, the Senate is in a sort-of quagmire in negotiations. Cruz and Sen. Jerry Moran, two Republicans, have been engrossed in talks with Democrat Sens. Richard Blumenthal and Cory Booker for the last six months, though the talks have recently stalled amid a pivotal campaign season.

In such a divisive election year, even the most optimistic college leaders believe the passing of legislation is a long shot.

November’s election could be one of the most consequential in college sports history, most notably in the Senate, where a flip to Republican control could potentially chart a smoother path for the NCAA’s requests to be granted.

A possible change in the White House could have an impact, too. A Republican assuming office likely means a sweeping overhaul of the National Labor Relations Board, the group controlling a portion of the athlete employment decisions. The president appoints members of the board, which for now is viewed as a left-leaning, pro-employment collection of people.

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