Senate bill backed by Bernie Sanders would classify college athletes as employees of their schools

·5-min read

A bill introduced in the United States Senate on Thursday would blow up the NCAA's student-athlete model if it becomes law.

The bill introduced by Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) is called the College Athlete Right to Organize Act and would classify student-athletes as employees and their schools as employers. The NCAA has long avoided any chance that athletes could be considered employees of their school and the bill would also grant athletes the ability to collectively bargain like unions in professional sports. 

The proposed legislation says that “any individual who participates in an intercollegiate sport for an institution of higher education and is a student enrolled in the institution of higher education shall be considered an employee of the institution of higher education if the individual receives any form of direct compensation, including grant-in-aid, from the institution of higher education and any terms or conditions of such compensation require participation in an intercollegiate sport.”

To do that, the bill wants the National Labor Relations Act to define college athletes as employees of their schools so athletes could have the freedom to collectively bargain.

The bill comes over seven years after Northwestern’s football team started exploring the possibility of unionizing as employees of their private school. The movement was led by quarterback Kain Colter, who told Yahoo Sports in 2014 that he wanted to “finally give athletes a true voice” and “a seat at the table when rules and regulations are determined.”

Northwestern players ultimately voted not to unionize. But their exploration was the beginning of the most recent — and successful — push to give college athletes more power.

US Senator Chris Murphy (2nd L), Democrat from Connecticut, speaks alongside US Senator Bernie Sanders (L), an Independent from Vermont, US Representative Ro Khanna (2nd R), Democrat of California, and US Representative Jim McGovern (R), Democrat of Massachusetts, during a press conference following a vote in the US House on ending US military involvement in the war in Yemen, on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, April 4, 2019. (Photo by SAUL LOEB / AFP)        (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images)
Sen. Chris Murphy and Sen. Bernie Sanders (L) are co-sponsoring a bill that would overhaul the structure of college sports. (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images)

What are the bill's chances?

It's not a secret that the NCAA wants a federal framework from Congress to guide its impending rules allowing athletes to get endorsement and sponsor money. As states across the country are passing bills allowing college athletes to make money, the NCAA would prefer to have a superseding federal law to follow instead of myriad state laws and the different intricacies that come with them. 

Classifying players as employees of the school would tear away the facade that the NCAA has put up for years while schools, coaches and administrators have made millions while athletes haven't made anything. And the NCAA said Thursday afternoon that it wasn't happy with the bill.

“College athletes are students and not employees of their college or university," the NCAA said in a statement. "This bill would directly undercut the purpose of college: earning a degree. The NCAA and its member schools support student-athletes through scholarships – many of which cover their full cost of education debt free – and numerous other benefits. NCAA members also are committed to modernizing name, image and likeness rules so student-athletes can benefit from those opportunities but not become employees of their school. We will continue to work with members of Congress to focus on issues that align with our priorities. But turning student-athletes into union employees is not the answer.”

Deeming athletes as employees would also go against one of the things the NCAA is hoping to achieve with its name, image and likeness rules. Schools have been adamant about a pay-for-play structure in college athletics. They would prefer that athletes make money from third parties and not from the schools directly outside of scholarships and cost-of-attendance stipends.

The radical changes proposed in the bill could hurt the bill's chances of passing. Democrats only have a majority in the Senate — Sanders caucuses as a Democrat — by virtue of a tie-breaking vote from Vice President Kamala Harris. Would each of the 50 Democrats in the Senate support the bill?

Murphy has been one of the most outspoken critics of the NCAA in recent years. The senator penned a guest op-ed for Yahoo Sports in January about the topic. In it, Murphy argued that the NCAA shouldn't be in charge of governing new income rules for players. 

First, we need to lift restrictions on how college athletes make money off their own name, image and likeness. It’s crazy that Nick Saban can make millions by appearing in non-stop Aflac commercials, but if his star players did the same, they would be banned from college sports. I’ll be introducing legislation that gives college athletes the right to make money off their talent, and I won’t support legislation that puts the NCAA in charge of regulating this right.

Putting the NCAA — the group that has the most to lose from generous college athlete endorsement deals — in charge of these endorsement deals would effectively render the right meaningless. If coaches can have unrestricted endorsement rights, so should students. The world won’t end, like all the adults making money off the kids’ free labor claim.

Timeline for NIL legislation

The bill's introduction comes as there hasn't been much optimism for a federal law governing athlete endorsements to come before July 1 — the date five states' new NIL laws take effect.

The NCAA said on May 19 that it expected its Division I Council to act on new NIL rules in its June 22-23 meeting. Action from the council would come just before the implementation of those new laws and be a boon for schools in the 45 states without laws set to go into effect. 

“Having the legislation in place by July 1 would provide greater consistency in the name, image and likeness opportunities available to student-athletes nationally as state laws become effective on or around July 1,” the NCAA said last week. “The Council expressed general support for amending the effective date of the proposals from Aug. 1, 2021, to July 1, 2021, or immediately if action is taken after July 1."

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