A U.S. senator mentioned the University of Utah’s new deal to provide football players a new truck not once but twice during a hearing Tuesday on name, image and likeness in college sports.
In his opening statement during the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said he favors a federal NIL standard and keeping college athletes as amateurs rather than professionals.
“Utah is offering everybody on the team a new truck. There’s no end to this. Donors are out there competing ferociously. In pro sports you sign a contract. That means nobody’s going to take that player away from you for a certain period of time. You got a chance to get your money back. Between the (transfer) portal and NIL, college football is in absolute chaos, and we need to fix it,” Graham said.
Earlier this month, the Crimson Collective, an independent organization centered around NIL opportunities for Utah athletes, offered all 85 scholarship football players a free lease on a new 2024 Dodge Ram 1500 Big Horn Night Edition truck. The retail price of each truck is $61,000.
“The University of Utah is not going to get left behind,” Utah President Taylor Randall said at the event announcing the deal.
In the Senate hearing, committee members questioned seven panelists, including NCAA president Charlie Baker, about NIL and proposed reforms in college sports. Most of the panelists agree that Congress must pass a national NIL law and also do everything it can to prevent college athletes from being declared university employees.
At least one lawsuit, Johnson v. NCAA, is making its way through the courts. Several former Division I athletes argue that they should be considered employees of their universities under the Fair Labor Standards Act and should be paid for their time related to their athletic activities.
Big Ten commissioner Tony Pettiti told the committee that if Congress does nothing, the system would be dictated by a patchwork of state laws and the outcome of litigation.
“I think the results are unpredictable,” he said.
Graham reiterated his belief that between the transfer portal and the “poaching” of players, there would be chaos.
“I mean, you’ve got the University of Utah offering everybody who will play a truck. So, we’re headed down the road here of a bidding war,” he said.
Pettiti agreed and said college coaches across multiple sports would echo that sentiment.
“The money entering the system, it’s called NIL but it’s not really NIL. So we say that collectives are responsible for the overwhelming amount of money in the system. That money is not really true NIL deals right now,” he said.
More than 200 “collectives” have popped up since a 2021 Supreme Court decision paved the way for college athletes to profit from the use of their name, image and likeness. The organizations, some nonprofit and some not, are typically founded by alumni and supporters of a school to connect athletes to money-making opportunities as well as negotiate their compensation packages. Collectives allow donors, boosters and fans to contribute money directly to athletes, who ostensibly must provide a small service such as a social media post or public appearance to get paid.
Graham said if Senate Commerce and Judiciary committees don’t act on the “money problem” in the next year, “this thing is going to be an absolute mess; you’re going to destroy college athletics as we know it.”
Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., said, “We need to avoid a race to the bottom in name, image and likeness, a bidding war among colleges that often tempt college athletes with unscrupulous deals or agents that put colleges on an unequal playing field.”
Blumenthal is among a group of senators who have introduced legislation to regulate NIL deals.
Panelists expressed strong opposition to classifying college athletes as employees for several reasons, including the funding challenges it would pose to smaller schools as well as nonrevenue or Olympic sports and women’s sports.
Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick said resolving the issue of college athletes as students rather than employees is the place where congressional intervention is most needed.
“That status is being attacked administratively, in litigation that’s ongoing and in state legislation. It is central to our model that student-athletes be students, not employees,” he said, adding athletes don’t want to be employees and attend Notre Dame to have a college experience.
“The risk of changing that model has many faces, but the one that concerns me the most is the risk to our Olympic sports and our female sports at colleges and universities,” Swarbrick said.
Baker asked Congress to pass a law granting college athletes special status that would affirm they are not university employees and allow them to receive enhanced benefits while protecting athletic programs from one-size-fits-all court decisions. If athletes were made employees, Division II and Division III schools, which have much smaller athletic budgets than Division I schools, would get out of the college sports business, he said.
As he has in the past, Baker called for transparency about what college players are making, especially when it comes to the difference between male and female athletes.
“There are no publicly available numbers. The first thing we need there more than anything is some form of transparency around what people are actually getting. There are reporters who cover college sports who won’t write about NIL because they don’t believe anything anybody tells them,” he told the committee.
Baker wants Congress to bolster Title IX provisions to prohibit discrimination on the basis of gender, race or sport in the marketing or facilitation of NIL agreements for prospective or current college athletes.
During the hearing, Graham tried to pin down Walker Jones, executive director of the Grove Collective at Ole Miss, on who is the highest-earning NIL athlete.
Jones said a lot of that is “urban legend.”
“I’m not asking about urban legend. You’re in this business, you should know. Tell me,” Graham replied.
Walker said it’s “probably” LSU gymnast Livvy Dunne. He said she makes in the seven figures but didn’t know exactly how much.
Utah Republican Sen. Mike also mentioned the Utah football team truck lease deal during his questioning of Jones about the role of collectives, saying, “All of them driving the same truck, which I know a lot of them enjoy.
Jones said the role of collectives have evolved from organizations to “write a check” or compensate an athlete has turn into a resource that provides players “tools and transparency in a an area that didn’t have any.” He said collectives stand ready to have oversight or a federal standard to govern them.
Collectives, he said, work with athletes every day. “We just don’t buy into all the negativity, that you hear,” Jones said. “Are there some things that need addressing? Absolutely.” But, he said, he said the overall impact of NIL on athletes’ health and well-being has been positive.