The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday chipped away at the NCAA’s fiction that paying college athletes would taint college sports. Congress should finish the job.
The NCAA, the governing body of collegiate athletics, not only refuses to allow students to profit from their fame and performance, but it has also vigorously fought any step in that direction. Scholarships are fine for some divisions, but the billions of dollars in television contracts, video game licensing, shoe sponsorships and more all go to the schools, conferences, coaches and the NCAA itself, not the players.
The case before the Supreme Court focused on one narrow part of that. The court ruled that the NCAA may not prohibit schools from giving student athletes education-related benefits — things like paid postgraduate internships, scholarships for graduate school and laptops.
That’s a start.
The NCAA has gotten away with treating athletes so badly for so long because it has been immune from antitrust laws. Writing in agreement with the court’s decision, Justice Brett Kavanaugh all but asked someone to challenge the system. He suggested that prohibitions against endorsement deals and other compensation “raise serious questions under the antitrust laws.”
Athletes shouldn’t have to wait years for that lawsuit when Congress could fix things now. Lawmakers could guarantee that student athletes receive fair compensation for the lucrative work they do and implement safeguards to protect them from coercion and catastrophic loss after injury.
Even now Congress is considering a bill to allow athletes more control over how their name, image and likeness are used. A university couldn’t sell posters with a star player’s picture on it without the player’s permission and a cut of the profits. Several states already have similar rules, but a national standard would ensure equity among schools.
U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, a Washington Democrat, wants the federal law also to protect the health, safety and rights of athletes. For example, coaches should not pressure players to play when they are hurt lest they lose their scholarship. Student athletes also need access to mental-health services and guidance from people whose financial well-being is not tied to wins and losses.
Cantwell chairs the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, which is ground zero for a lot of these conversations.
The protections and compensation that student athletes now lack are a given in almost every other industry. America has come a long way in protecting workers, and when it comes down to it, college players in every sport are workers, too. Congress should follow Cantwell’s lead and force the NCAA to treat them fairly.