How pro should college athletes go?

Bills would allow endorsement deals, require payments from schools

WHEN CHRIS WEBBER was a top basketball player for the University of Michigan in the early 1990s, paraphernalia with his name was being sold nationwide, but Webber could not receive a cent.

Webber was forced to end his career after a scandal in which he accepted money from a local booster, which is illegal under NCAA rules that prohibit athletes from profiting from their college sports careers.

“These Chris Webber jerseys were all over the country, but Chris Webber couldn’t afford to have lunch, couldn’t afford his textbooks,” said Sen. Barry Feingold, an Andover Democrat, at a State House hearing on Tuesday. “Back then, it didn’t seem fair.”

Since that time, the amount of money in college sports has rocketed, but the problem of student athletes in poverty remains, Feingold said. Feingold is sponsoring a bill, S.2454, which would let college athletes earn money by licensing their name or image for commercial purposes. The athletes could hire professional representation, and any money they earn would not affect their scholarships.

“This has become a billion-dollar industry. It’s no longer just college kids playing each other,” Feingold said. “If someone’s using your name to profit, I believe you should be entitled to receive compensation for that as well.”

The bill would apply to athletes at all college levels, from Division 1 schools at the top of the sports pyramid down to community colleges. In a practical sense, relatively few athletes would be likely to benefit in Massachusetts because relatively few attract large followings or go on to the pros. Feingold said Boston College has had some well-known student athletes, and some prominent hockey players have come through the state’s schools.

A similar bill was filed in the House by Rep. Carlos Gonzalez, a Springfield Democrat who chairs the Legislature’s Black and Latino Caucus. Gonzalez’s bill, HD.4559, would compensate student-athletes by requiring schools to pay athletes at the end of each season a portion of ticket revenues generated from their games.

Gonzalez said many student athletes come from poor communities. “When universities and colleges are making billions of dollars and student athletes are struggling to make ends meet…I feel it’s basically unfair,” Gonzalez said.

The Feingold and Gonzalez bills would require every institution to establish a fund to compensate athletes who suffer career-ending or long-term sports injuries and go on to finish college.

Feingold pointed to former Boston University hockey player Travis Roy, who was paralyzed from the neck down during his first game as a college freshman hockey player in 1995. “I believe there should be some type of fund out there that helps you with these situations,” Feingold said.

California is currently the only state to let student athletes earn compensation for the use of their name or likeness – over objections by the NCAA, which governs college sports. The California law, which was signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom in September 2019 but will not go into effect until January 2023, will allow college athletes to sign endorsement deals and hire agents without losing their eligibility to play college sports.

Several other states are considering similar laws.

A report released by US Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut in March 2019 said that college sports programs generated $14 billion in revenue in 2018. Schools spent $2.9 billion on student athlete scholarships, $936 million on student aid for non-tuition costs, and $1.2 billion on coach’s salaries.

Murphy is part of a congressional working group that is crafting legislation to determine how student athletes can benefit from the use of their name and image. He wrote in his report, “The current system does more to advance the financial interests of broadcasters, apparel companies, and athletic departments than it does for the student-athletes who provide the product from which everyone else profits.”

The NCAA, which sets national rules for college athletics, voted in October to reverse its historic opposition to allowing student athletes to be paid for the use of their image or name for commercial purposes. The NCAA has created a working group to look at potential options for letting student athletes receive compensation for the use of their name and likeness. That group is expected to develop recommendations later this year. The NCAA is also lobbying Congress to establish a national policy.

The co-chairs of the NCAA working group, Big East Conference Commissioner Val Ackerman and Ohio State Athletic Director Gene Smith, in a statement released last month, wrote that while they are open to changing NCAA rules, they worry about the potential for abuses and harmful influences with respect to recruiting, if students can receive money beyond the academic scholarships that are currently available to them.

“A patchwork approach — where each state possibly has different rules — may exasperate this concern and would make it impossible to conduct intercollegiate athletics at a national level,” they wrote.

Richard Doherty, president of the Association of Independent Colleges and Universities in Massachusetts, said his organization would favor a national solution, rather than a state one.

“Congress and the NCAA have agreed to develop a federal solution that will include many of the provisions in the proposed state legislation,” Doherty said. “A federal solution is critical so that colleges and their athletes are not operating under 50 different state policies.”

The Massachusetts bills are still in the early stages of consideration. Feingold’s bill had a hearing Tuesday before the Joint Committee on Higher Education, while Gonzalez’s bill has not yet been assigned to a policy committee.