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College sports leaders appeal to Sen. John Thune, Congress for federal action on name, image, likeness legislation

Thune: "We don't have a lot of time."

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At left, NCAA President Mark Emmert testifies on college athlete name, image and likeness rights during a hearing of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S. June 9, 2021. U.S. Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., is pictured in the background center-left. (Jonathan Ernst / Reuters)
REUTERS

WASHINGTON — College athletic leaders desperately appealed to members of Congress on Wednesday, including U.S. Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., seeking bipartisan federal action on laws that would allow athletes to earn money from their names and likenesses.

But time is running short, with five states putting name, image and likeness (NIL) rules into effect on July 1, which would allow athletes to sign endorsement deals, sell autographs and make money off their social media presence.

Dealing with an NCAA and college athletic establishment that has dragged its feet for numerous years on creating rules around the issues, Congress is being asked to step in and create national rules and guideposts for the legislation.

"We need your help," Gonzaga basketball coach Mark Few told senators in a Commerce, Science and Transportation committee meeting. "This is not an issue the NCAA and individual states can fix."

Thune acknowledged that the subject was complicated, and noted that the state-by-state patchwork of rules could be troublesome in athletic conferences that span numerous states.

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“There’s certain things the federal government does well and certain things the federal government doesn’t do well and this strikes me as something that we might not do well,” Thune said.

Primary among Thune’s concerns is how the state-by-state landscape would affect Division I mid-major universities such as the University of South Dakota and South Dakota State University, or the state’s five Division II institutions, and whether South Dakota’s athletic programs would be at a disadvantage compared to states that already have NIL rules.

“The impact would be enormous and if you’re from a state like South Dakota or Washington, you would be put at a huge competitive disadvantage, and one that would be very difficult to make up, both when the students are coming out of high school but also as they have the opportunity to transfer,” Few said.

NCAA President Mark Emmert testified that a patchwork of rules on a state level would undermine the collegiate model of amateur athletics, and would turn athletes into employees and hurt non-revenue sports.

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Gonzaga University men's basketball coach Mark Few, with Howard University President Wayne Frederick and NCAA President Mark Emmert, testifies on college athlete name, image and likeness rights during a hearing of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. June 9, 2021. (Jonathan Ernst / Reuters)
REUTERS

But his organization, composed of leaders of colleges and universities, has repeatedly punted on the opportunities to create rules in the past, leaving state legislatures to move the ball on the issue, frequently with the goal of the rules allowing their state’s schools to more easily recruit athletes.

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“We’re here because of an NCAA that cannot seem to make up its mind,” U.S. Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn.

Five states — Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi and New Mexico — will have NIL rules that will go into effect on July 1. Nebraska and Oklahoma allow schools to grant rights immediately but must do so no later than July 1, 2023.

Among the questions to be determined includes whether athletes should be required to share their endorsement contracts with anyone and if the NCAA should have a say in capping earnings by an athlete? If not, student athletes could have free rein to make as much as they can from NIL earnings.

Among those missing from Wednesday’s Capitol Hill panel? An active collegiate athlete. And women’s representation. And while the NCAA has a desire to see federal action before July 1, senators indicated they are not close to having bipartisan rules in place by then.

“It sounds like from a time standpoint, we don’t have a lot of time,” Thune said. “We need to come up with something in fairly short order.”

Traxler is the assistant editor and sports editor for the Mitchell Republic. He's worked for the newspaper since 2014 and has covered a wide variety of topics. He can be reached at mtraxler@mitchellrepublic.com.
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