Congressional hearings began this week on issues related to college athlete compensation, rooted in lawsuits and legislation around use of name, image and likeness (NIL) by universities, television broadcast partners, commercial vendors, and third-party licensees like video game manufacturers.

As chair of the Senate Commerce committee, U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell has taken a central role in this debate. Washington state ties go even deeper with testimony that included former University of Washington president and current National Collegiate Athletic Association President Mark Emmert and Gonzaga University men’s basketball coach Mark Few.

The Commerce committee hearing on Wednesday arrived after over 30 states have already taken action — a legislative patchwork that will allow athletes overdue control of their name and image and receive outside compensation for everything from social media content to clinics and training programs, no different than a college musician or artist providing paid lessons or workshops.

These protections are critical to athletes in high-profile, revenue-generating sports like football and men’s and women’s basketball — but take on an outsized importance for athletes who flash on the national scene in a lesser-known sport or wish to pursue the Olympics. Even a small amount of compensation for a star collegiate swimmer can make a real difference, helping make the dream of global competition a reality.

Federal action is both overdue and critical, filling a void created by the NCAA. Since the first player-driven lawsuits filed in 2002 and 2009, the NCAA has aggressively fought needed reforms and fairness in state legislatures and Congress, as well as the courts of law and public opinion. Since last year, even as states were passing laws that will go into effect in less than a month, the NCAA buried its own NIL recommendations and doubled down on a failing strategy of litigation and delay.   

As a result, on July 1 almost a dozen states will provide their universities an unfair recruiting advantage — promises of compensation other states cannot offer. While Washington state introduced its own NIL bill in the 2020 legislative session, it did not pass nor was reintroduced this year. Only Congress can level the playing field and assure uniformity across the country. Many more states will follow in the coming months without federal engagement.

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Beyond NIL compensation, any national legislation should include overdue reforms to protect athlete health and support equity within college sports. For too long, college athletes have sacrificed their health and future, generating immense wealth for their universities, television networks and vendors. While football’s concussion-related injuries are the highest profile, a catastrophic knee injury ends not only an athletic career but closes the door on potential future jobs and quality of life. This is why any federal legislation should establish a separate fund for long-term care and assistance.

Another element missing from most state-level reforms is protecting hard-won gender equity in college sports, a gulf still unacceptably wide (as witnessed in viral videos depicting the weight room and dining hall disparities between the women and men’s NCAA basketball tournament this March, and now the College World Series). Any federal action to respect and protect the rights and futures of athletes must include women athletes. It shouldn’t take a TikTok video exposing unacceptable conditions to force change. As a nation we celebrate the success of women on the global stage — soccer, gymnastics and swimming are just a few examples. Women deserve a seat at the table as these polices are developed and implemented.

These health and equity protections are critical because while NIL compensation is a major step forward, we must recognize there will be many competing in college sports who will never see a dime in monetized support and only a tiny percent of college athletes turn professional.

Thankfully, U.S. Sens. Richard Blumenthal, D-Connecticut, and Cory Booker, D-New Jersey, both raised important questions about health and equity in this week’s hearing. Those concerns received vocal acknowledgment from the committee’s Ranking Republican Roger Wicker of Mississippi. While working toward the need for strong, bipartisan legislation, Cantwell rightly challenged the notion that a multibillion-dollar (and growing) collegiate athletics industry cannot care for the people who generate the revenue — with NIL protection and wraparound reforms that safeguard the health and opportunities all athletes deserve.

We are a nation that looks to college sports with high expectations of entertainment and school pride. Let’s finally do right by these hardworking, talented individuals and create a national legislative framework protecting athletes and athletic programs. Cantwell and her colleagues have the opportunity to create a level playing field, in every state and for every young person dedicated to excellence in their sport. The time to act is now.