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NCAA wants Congress' help to stabilize collegiate sports


The financial structure of college athletics is evolving quickly. Some might say unraveling quickly. There's a patchwork of state laws about how student athletes can be compensated. Several lawsuits are working their way through the courts. And so how does the NCAA hope to straighten this out? Well, here's what Baylor University President Linda Livingstone suggested when she addressed the NCAA's Board of Governors last week.


LINDA LIVINGSTONE: Congress is really the only entity that can affirm student athletes' unique status. We have to ensure that Congress understands what's at stake and motivate them to act.

SHAPIRO: Well, Nicole Auerbach has been covering the moving goalposts of college sports. She is a senior writer with The Athletic. Good to have you back.

NICOLE AUERBACH: Yeah, thanks for having me.

SHAPIRO: Before we get to the role that Congress might play here, just quickly remind us how we reached this point. I mean, in 2021, college athletes got the right to make money off their name, image and likeness. Tell us what's happened since then.

AUERBACH: Well, it's kind of been an unregulated space. And a lot of that is because of the Alston case, which was not about name, image and likeness. That was about education-related benefits for athletes. And the Supreme Court ruled unanimously against the NCAA and said, you can't cap that type of compensation. That came just days before the floodgates opened on name, image and likeness. And so everyone was very nervous and scared of potential lawsuits. And the NCAA really didn't regulate it.

SHAPIRO: Why does the NCAA think Congress is the key to resolving all of this?

AUERBACH: It feels like it is a last resort as the walls are closing in from various other lawsuits and the National Labor Relations Board, challenging the business model of college sport. So I think when you heard those comments from Linda Livingstone and you hear comments from the incoming NCAA president, Charlie Baker, what they're saying is, please protect the descriptor of a student athlete.

SHAPIRO: You say Congress is sort of a last resort for the NCAA. This is a Congress that took 15 votes just to get a speaker of the House. How realistic is it that they would actually do something like this?

AUERBACH: It was certainly ironic that this message came out just a couple of days after that all went down. And it is a last resort because the walls are closing in on those lawsuits. So you have the Johnson case, you have the House case, and then you have the NLRB working on an unfair labor practice charge. So you have these outside entities already taking aim at the NCAA system.

And I think that you're looking at Congress as something that can preempt state laws and create national standards in an area that has not been regulated and hoping that that will allow the NCAA to continue to make rules in this space. And Charlie Baker said that there are always challenges associated with moving any legislation. But he thinks that there are enough entities around these congresspeople, around these senators who care about college sports deeply and can convince them that this whole thing will look very different if they don't do something. So they think that that can create a sense of urgency around this issue.

SHAPIRO: Is there any risk that the NCAA comes off looking like the boy who cried wolf? Because for years they said any compensation at all would bring the system down like a house of cards, and now they're saying, well, calling these athletes employees would bring the system down like a house of cards. Like, at some point, when the system hasn't collapsed, are people left saying, hmm, the NCAA has lost some credibility?

AUERBACH: I think that's a very real concern. And I also think that the NCAA has never been weaker. It has been very reactive on these issues over the last 10 years. If you think back about the different lawsuits that really pressured the system, the NCAA was never proactive on these issues. And so throwing up your hands and saying - well, maybe Congress will solve us - has always rubbed a certain portion of the constituents the wrong way and a lot of fans and the public.

SHAPIRO: You've described what the schools want. Can you tell us what the players want?

AUERBACH: Well, the players are enjoying the spoils of the NIL world. They are enjoying the opportunity to cash in. For the most part, athletes are more aware of the financial circumstances surrounding them than ever before. They know what the coaches make. They know what the facilities cost. And they see where the money has flown, in that it's not gone directly to them. So I think NIL is a good first step for them. But there are a lot of athletes who understand the value of collective action and the value of revenue sharing and have spoken up about how they believe that they deserve a cut of that.

SHAPIRO: That's Nicole Auerbach of The Athletic. Thanks a lot.

AUERBACH: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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