Last Thursday, as SEC officials readied to make a grand announcement on their football scheduling format, another news item, this one much more important, filtered through the labyrinth of conference rooms from the league’s meetings in Florida.
Minutes before commissioner Greg Sankey took to the podium to announce the conference’s plan to remain at eight conference games for the 2024 football season, the California State Assembly passed a bill that would require its NCAA Division I schools—there are 26 of them—to share revenue with athletes. The news stirred administrators within the Sandestin Hilton, many of them against a bill that would radically change college sports.
That said, some saw positives.
“Someone used the word this morning that what’s happened in California is a crisis,” Mississippi State president Mark Keenum told Sports Illustrated last Friday from SEC meetings. “You don’t usually see Congress take action until there is a crisis.”
The news from California, conveniently or not, came a week before college leaders from the SEC are scheduled to visit the nation’s capital for the annual SEC On The Hill event on Wednesday and Thursday. League coaches and administrators plan to descend on Washington D.C. to further encourage lawmakers to pass a federal solution for athlete compensation.
Each school’s congregation will meet with their state’s delegation, but there are some one-off meetings. For instance, Keenum and Mississippi State officials plan to meet with Sen. Marsha Blackburn, the Republican from Tennessee who is a Mississippi State graduate.
In another example, Alabama coach Nick Saban, as well as Sankey, are scheduled to meet with Louisiana Republican Steve Scalise, the House Majority Leader.
“They’re on one piece of the front line,” Sankey said of the coaches attending the D.C. visit. “They’re dealing with their teams. They’re involved with the culture of transfers in and out. They can have the opportunity to continue to contextualize what’s happening within college athletics right now.”
The SEC isn’t alone.
More institutional leaders are expected in D.C. on Thursday for a summit on the future of college athletics hosted by the University of Arizona. That list includes NCAA president Charlie Baker, ACC commissioner Jim Phillips, MAC commissioner Jon Steinbrecher, Clemson athletic director Graham Neff and Kansas State chancellor Douglas Girod, as well as representatives from several NIL collectives. Walker Jones, the executive director of Ole Miss’ Grove Collective, will be on a panel Thursday as part of the summit.
In May, Jones told Sports Illustrated that a group of nine collectives were in the early stages of creating a trade association to exchange best practices, share information and have a voice in potential federal legislation. Representatives from at least five of those collectives—Ole Miss, Tennessee, Clemson, Washington and Georgia—are expected in D.C. this week.
All of this is part of a feverish effort from college leaders to convince lawmakers to pass a Congressional bill governing college athlete compensation—a fight that has gone fruitless now for four years.
For some, hope is on the horizon.
“I’m more and more confident we will see federal legislation sooner than later,” says Julie Sommer, an attorney and member of the Drake Group, an organization whose mission is to defend academic integrity at universities. “The Drake Group is working with a number of offices in Congress who are trying to grapple with complex issues. Capitol Hill staffers are hard at work on these and there’s a new momentum.”
The continued movement of states to enact more and more NIL-related laws has gotten the attention of Congressional lawmakers, an issue within the SEC’s footprint. But maybe the most attention-grabbing issue is what’s playing out in California, where a bill requiring schools such as UCLA and USC to share revenue with athletes is halfway to becoming law.
California State Assembly Bill 252, after passing through the Assembly, is expected to arrive in the California State Senate over the coming weeks, where it likely needs approval from three committees to then land on the floor for debate. The bill, which died in the Senate last year, survived a movement last week from members of the California Assembly Women’s Caucus over Title IX concerns.
Amendments in the bill, some of which remain unclear and have not been publicized, appeased enough members to garner the necessary votes.
In an email obtained by Sports Illustrated, amendments to the bill include:
- the creation of an athlete degree completion fund that would distribute new revenue equally between male and female athletes.
- a permission for colleges to use additional funds to ensure that non-revenue sports are maintained.
- a prohibition on eliminating sports teams and cutting individual scholarships.
Speaking with Sports Illustrated, Sankey suggests that the amendments to the California bill call for schools in the state to use student fees to potentially pay athletes in sports that do not generate revenue.
“There are advocates who have failed to recognize the big picture. That big picture being the support for women’s athletics, the ability to sustain athletic programs,” Sankey says. “If you look at the adjustments offered, it’s ‘Go charge your students to fill up your athletic budget.’
“My hope is that, when it goes to the Senate, that others will take a really long look at understanding that it is not at all helpful in advancing college athletics.”
If passed in the California Senate and signed by the governor, the law would likely trigger a wave of similar bills in other states, much like the NIL movement in 2020 and 2021.
“That has ramifications for all universities,” says Keenum, the longest-serving SEC president and the chair of the College Football Playoff. “We compete in California and recruit in California. We all compete across state lines. We earnestly need to have a serious focus by Congress for college athletics to have federal oversight.”
But how to do it exactly? That’s part of a four-year debate among the country’s two political parties. Republicans want a more narrow, NCAA-friendly bill focused mostly on name, image and likeness (NIL). Democrats want more broad, athlete-friendly legislation that covers NIL, long-term healthcare, unlimited scholarships and, for some, revenue sharing.
Above all, the NCAA is seeking a college athlete bill that (1) provides a national NIL standard, preempting state NIL laws; (2) deems college athletes as students and not employees; and (3) offers protections from legal challenges so the NCAA can create more rules.
While more than a dozen college athlete bills have been introduced over the last few years, several recent pieces of legislation are gaining traction from college leaders:
- A narrow NIL-based bill from Rep. Gus Bilirakis (R-Fla.), the chair of a subcommittee of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, which likely controls legislation around college athletics within the House of Representatives.
- A bill from former college football coach-turned-senator Tommy Tuberville (R-Ala.) and Joe Manchin (D-W.V.), a childhood friend of Saban. The bill is in draft form and has been examined by those within college athletics.
A deadline of sorts is lingering, says Tom McMillen, a former Congressman who leads LEAD1, an organization representing FBS athletic directors. The presidential election season, fast approaching, is a time in which legislation in Congress often slows to a crawl.
“If you get too much into next year, it gets caught up in the election mode,” McMillen says.
A boon for college leaders has been Baker’s persistence on the Hill. In March, he spent much of his first two weeks on the job meeting with lawmakers in what many of them describe as positive visits. He’s a fresh new face after former NCAA president Mark Emmert spent years on the Hill struggling to convince members to move on the issue.
“The engagement under Emmert was not really productive,” says House member Mikie Sherrill (D-N.J.), who has met with Baker. “This felt like there was far more interest and engagement in coming to solutions. I came away impressed.”
Baker also recently met with Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), the new ranking member of the Senate Commerce Committee, the group that likely controls the trajectory of any college athlete legislation. Baker spoke with Cruz and his staff about the concerns of schools over the current landscape of college sports and athlete compensation.
The NCAA wants to have a firmer hand in enforcing NIL but is somewhat handcuffed by previous court rulings. The discussion with Cruz involved granting the NCAA protections to create stricter policies around NIL. “You don’t need to create a federal NIL standard if you empower the NCAA to create its own rules through a safe harbor,” a Congressional staff member says.
This week, the SEC and other college leaders anticipate accelerating discussions with familiar faces like Saban, LSU coach Brian Kelly and Auburn coach Hugh Freeze.
“When you have not only presidents and chancellors, but more importantly, you have football coaches who come and bring a bit of their celebrity, it helps people take a better focus on it,” says Keenum, who himself served for years in Congress as chief of staff to former Mississippi Sen. Thad Cochran. “The coaches give us an opportunity to better paint a picture of what’s going on with these things.”
But will it work?
“That’s a good question,” Keenum says. “I don’t have an answer for it.”