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Democratic senators introduce 'College Athletes Bill of Rights' that could reshape NCAA

Sen. Richard Blumenthal is one of two Senators that are introducing legislation Thursday that would dramatically alter the compensation and treatment of athletes in major-college sports programs.

Sens. Cory Booker and Richard Blumenthal on Thursday are introducing legislation that would dramatically alter the compensation and treatment of athletes in major-college sports programs.

The measure backs those changes with a variety of enforcement provisions that would be directed by a commission whose governing board would be appointed by the President and have subpoena power. It also would provide athletes and state attorneys general the right to sue for enforcement.

The 61-page piece of legislation, named the “College Athletes Bill of Rights,” would go far beyond other recently introduced bills largely aimed at improving athletes’ ability to make money from their names, images and likenesses (NIL).

For example, Booker, D-N.J., and Blumenthal, D-Conn., want to see athletes annually receive money directly based on the revenue surpluses they help their teams generate. They also want athletes to have long-term health care and a set of educational protections.

Their bill would mandate not only individual NIL rights, but also athletes’ ability to market themselves as a group. That step, among other impacts, would begin to create a mechanism for athletes to be legally depicted in once-popular video games that were discontinued amid NIL litigation against the NCAA.

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From an individual NIL standpoint, schools would not be able to prevent athletes from having arrangements based on what they do outside of mandatory team activities. Schools also could not “prohibit or discourage” an athlete from wearing the shoes of their choice in mandatory team activities “unless the footwear has lights, reflective fabric, or poses a health risk.” This and other parts of the bill essentially would allow athletes to have endorsement deals — including with shoe and apparel companies — that conflict with schools’ contracts.

That runs counter to proposals for NIL rules changes the NCAA is scheduled to vote on in January.

The bill is “the result of growing outrage with a failure to protect athletes' health and safety and treat them fairly financially,” Blumenthal told USA TODAY Sports. “Literal blood, sweat and tears of athletes have fueled a $14 billion industry with very little benefit to them — and a lot of harm.

“This bill of rights is a sweeping, comprehensive effort to protect their health, safety and wellness, as well as their educational opportunities and their financial well-being.

“Yes, it looks big because it is. But every element is very practical and doable. And it has a very powerful enforcement mechanism.”

 Like a measure introduced last week by Senate Commerce Committee chairman Roger Wicker, R-Miss., the bill is all but certain not to receive a mark-up during the final weeks of this session of Congress, which will be dominated by year-end spending bills and COVID-19 relief measures.

But, also like Wicker’s, it can be easily re-introduced when the new session begins in January. Whether Wicker’s bill or this bill becomes the leading vehicle for potential Congressional involvement in college sports may depend on whether Georgia’s Senate run-off elections give Democrats control of the chamber.

Sen. Cory Booker is one of two Senators that are introducing legislation Thursday that would dramatically alter the compensation and treatment of athletes in major-college sports programs.

Booker and Blumenthal signaled their intention to introduce this bill in August, when they released a framework that was endorsed by seven other Democrats, including now-Vice President-elect Kamala Harris and longtime NCAA critic Chris Murphy, D-Conn. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., also signed on.

The bill would shift the college sports landscape by:

►Providing broad and lengthy health-care coverage from a new medical trust fund that would be financed through annual payments from schools based on their athletics department revenue.

The fund would cover the cost of independent second opinions and out-of-pocket expenses for sports-related injuries while athletes are playing college sports, then for five years after they stop playing. Longer term medical expenses would be covered for “athletes diagnosed with certain sports-related conditions, including chronic traumatic encephalopathy,” the brain condition associated with repetitive head injuries.

►Requiring the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to set a wide range of health and safety guidelines for college athletics programs. Athletic trainers and team medical personnel would need to be “employed by the health office” of the school and “operate independently from the athletic department.”

►Mandating that anyone who receives an athletic scholarship for an academic year be provided with a scholarship at that school until they receive an undergraduate degree from the school.

►Requiring any academic advisor or tutoring services provided to athletes to be “independent from the athletic department.”

►Creating provisions designed to improve athletes’ academic choices and campus lives, including one provision that says a school “may not influence, or retaliate against a college athlete based on … selection of any course of academic major” and another that says a school cannot impose restrictions on athletes’ speech that are more stringent than those imposed on students who not athletes.

Some athletes have talked about coaches or other athletics staff discouraging them from attempting certain classes or majors because of sports demands. Some athletes also have said they were prevented from using social media or commenting in certain ways on particular topics.

►Mandating that schools have financial literacy and life skills programs that would be eligible for academic credit “consistent with the credit allocation guidelines” of a school.

►Preventing a school from dropping a team “unless all other options for reducing the expenses of the athletic program, including reducing coach salaries and administrative and facility expenses, are not feasible."

►Allowing athletes to go through a pro draft but return to school as long they notify the school not later than seven days after the draft is completed and they didn’t get paid by a pro team.

Standing behind all of this, the bill would provide for the formation of a Commission on College Athletics that would have broad enforcement and oversight responsibilities. In addition subpoena power, the Commission’s nine-member board would have the authority to impose financial penalties on the NCAA, conferences and schools that could be in excess of $10 million and the ability to punish officials by suspending them from working at a school or in college sports for years.

“Basically,” Blumenthal said, “it has one goal, and only one goal, which is to protect athletes. In their limbs, in their pocketbooks. In their future.”