Monday, July 15, 2024

House committee approves bill that would prevent college athletes from being employees

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WASHINGTON — A U.S. House committee on Thursday approved a bill that would prevent college athletes from being considered employees of a school, conference or governing organization like the NCAA.

The Committee on Education and the Workforce’s action marks the first time in college sports officials’ recent era of Congressional lobbying efforts that a bill has even received a committee vote. Now, the measure can be brought to the House floor.

The bill was introduced by Rep. Bob Good (R-Va.), who wrestled for Liberty University when it was an NCAA Division II school and later worked for the school as an athletics department administrator. Its all-Republican group of co-sponsors includes Education and Workforce Committee chair Virginia Foxx (N.C.). The 23-16 vote approving the measure was along straight party lines.

It remains to be seen whether the Republican-controlled House’s leadership will put the bill up for a full vote. It’s also not clear how it would be received in the Democrat-controlled Senate. —

In separate interviews Thursday with USA TODAY Sports before the committee hearing, Sens. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), who have been active on college-sports issues, indicated they are seeking a more comprehensive measure.

“Just picking at one of these threads and not looking at the holistic thing is a little problematic to me,” Booker said.

Blumenthal said: “I think there are ways to provide for greater fairness and equity without making athletes formally employees of their schools,” but he latter added “as much as I may have reservations about employment status, I want to achieve the same kind of benefits and rights that employment status would provide.”

Asked whether recent NCAA rules changes aimed at improving athlete benefits are sufficient, Blumenthal said: “I think more needs to be done. The NCAA has provided a start.”

The bill’s move through the committee Thursday comes roughly three weeks after the NCAA and the Power Five approved the proposed settlement of three athlete-compensation antitrust lawsuits that would include $2.8 billion in damages and billions more in future revenue-sharing payments to athletes, including shares of money from sponsorship revenue.

But the proposed settlement does not address athletes’ employment status, and it would not fully cover the NCAA’s ongoing legal exposure.

“The NCAA is making changes to provide student-athletes with enhanced guaranteed health, wellness and academic benefits and the association is proud to stand with student-athlete leadership from all three divisions in support of this legislation,” NCAA senior vice president of external affairs Tim Buckley said in a statement after the vote. “Building on the proposed settlement, by partnering with Congress to affirm that student-athletes are not employees, we can continue our progress in building a model for college sports that provides fair opportunities and experiences to the broadest number of young people possible.”

Good’s bill is narrowly drawn, aimed only at the employment issue. While the NCAA and its member schools and conferences also have been seeking some type of protection from antitrust suits like the array of those that have been hovering above college sports for more than 15 years, NCAA President Charlie Baker has been adamant in his opposition to the prospect of college athletes becoming school employees.

“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,” Rep. Lori Trahan (D-Mass.), who has been active on college sports issues, said in statement: “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.”

If this bill were to become law, it presumably would end several legal actions  that could result in college athletes becoming school employees. Cases are being pursued by National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) representatives regarding the employment status of men’s basketball players at Dartmouth and the status of football, men’s basketball and women’s basketball players at the University of Southern California.

Those cases occurred in the months after the Biden Administration’s appointed NLRB general counsel, Jennifer Abruzzo, issued a memo saying she views college athletes as employees under the National Labor Relations Act.

In opening remarks, Foxx specifically cited the NLRB cases, saying the bill “safeguards the economic freedom of student-athletes from misclassification by NLRB bureaucrats.” During debate, Good called the idea of preventing college athletes from becoming employees “likely a common-sense issue for most Americans.” He said athletes being employees would, among other things, increase administrative and other costs for athletics departments, and, thus lead to schools dropping sports.

He claimed that the Biden administration would prefer to see “one more unionized employee” even if it meant thousands of athletes would lose opprtunities to play sports.

However, this is not just an NLRB matter. There is a case pending with the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that seeks to result in college athletes becoming employees entitled to at least a minimum wage, in the same way that students are paid for work-study jobs.

Paul McDonald, an attorney for the plaintiffs in that case, this week sent a letter to the Education and the Workforce Committee members arguing that the bill approved Thursday would violate equal-protection provisions of the Constitution because it would result in college athletes being treated differently for their work than work-study students, who also may be getting scholarships, are treated for theirs.

Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.), the committee’s ranking member, noted the bill’s title, the “Protecting Student Athlete’s Economic Freedom Act,” said: “The only freedom the bill protects is the Republicans’ freedom to strip athletes (of) their rights.”

In the Senate, there have been negotiations between Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Booker, Blumenthal (D-Conn.) and Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) over a more comprehensive bill addressing issues in college sports, but they so far have not been able to resolve differences in discussion drafts they respectively have circulated.

Cruz’s version includes a provision that would prevent athletes from being employees of a school, conference or college athletics association.

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