Utah lawmakers are poised to make a serious mistake by passing a bill that would make name, image and likeness contracts signed by athletes at state universities secret.

The bill enshrines secrecy in an area that deserves bright sunshine. It would be a blot on the record of state lawmakers who often speak of the need for transparency and accountability.

HB202, which has passed the House and is awaiting a vote on the floor of the Senate, would put taxpayers in the Beehive State in the dark amid a growing and constantly changing landscape that allows public schools to pay their athletes. Secrecy breeds corruption, and that is especially a concern in the modern world of college athletics, particularly men’s football and basketball, which are multibillion-dollar businesses.

College sports’ connection to big money has been a concern at least since the Rose Bowl was completed in 1922. And history is filled with scandals that have arisen from this connection. But the amount of money being spent has never been so great as it is today, and the move to allow colleges to pay their best players, monitor contracts with outside businesses currying favor with athletic departments, presents many new challenges to fair play.

Do Utah lawmakers really mean to suggest that the public should blithely trust universities to lure athletes with contracts allowing them to profit off their name, image and likeness without any independent and transparent oversight? When has that ever been a prudent strategy?

Sponsored by Rep. Jordan Teuscher, R-South Jordan, this bill would require student athletes to submit to the university any NIL contract over $600 in value, in exchange for written acknowledgment from the school regarding whether the contract complies with university policies or provisions of the proposed law.

But the bill would specifically exempt these contracts and records, as well as any correspondence or material related to them, from Utah’s Government Records Access and Management Act, or GRAMA.

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In other words, all records of deals made or rejected with athletes, as well as the reasons for doing so, would be secret. Taxpayers wouldn’t know even generic information, such as whether male or female athletes were getting the most deals, or any other demographic data. The public would not have access to these records even if the names of the athletes were removed.

More importantly, the public would not be able to assess whether male and female athletes are being treated fairly.

We’ve made all these points to lawmakers. Their basic response? We don’t care. We just want our teams to win on the field.

The Deseret News is currently in litigation with the University of Utah and Utah State, Weber State, Utah Valley and Southern Utah universities over whether NIL contracts are public records.

In October, the State Records Committee sided with the media and ruled that NIL contracts are not “education records.” The committee ordered the schools to release the contracts, arguing that NIL agreements become public records under state law when they are shared with a university.

The committee said, “... it’s apparent to us that a university compliance officer reviewing these contracts to ensure players’ eligibility under the rules is indeed conducting the public’s business.”

Indeed, that should be obvious. But the universities have challenged that ruling in state court.

NIL contracts are not private. They are subject to rules imposed by the NCAA and Utah’s public universities. The public has an obvious interest in knowing these rules are followed and that its tax dollars are being spent wisely.

The public also has an interest in knowing whether women are accorded the same treatment as men under these NIL contracts. This information also would be kept from public scrutiny.

NIL entered the college landscape in 2021. Student athletes had argued they were risking injuries on the field or court that could ruin their chances to make money as professionals, while universities reaping all the profits from their marketability.

Their arguments were compelling, but the remedy has opened a new area of concern in an area of college athletics — recruitment — that already has resulted in frequent violations of existing rules nationwide.

Utah Senate President Stuart Adams said the secrecy afforded by HB202 is important if Utah schools are going to compete for athletes.

NCAA rules specifically forbid schools from recruiting athletes with promises or guarantees related to NIL. However, it’s naive to think student athletes are not going to share any NIL offers they receive with other schools that are recruiting them.

The NIL landscape is changing quickly. Late last week, a federal judge temporarily blocked the NCAA from enforcing its rule barring recruits from signing deals for pay from booster groups. That ruling, which theathletic.com said is applicable to every state, effective immediately, was another defeat for the NCAA, which would like to prohibit the practice of paying athletes.

There seems to be no stopping the movement toward turning college sports into semi-pro organizations. But with so much money involved, transparency becomes all the more important.

The NCAA reported that Division 1 schools earned a combined $15.8 billion in revenues from athletics in 2019 (more recent figures are distorted by pandemic restrictions). Of this, $10.2 billion was generated through games and related revenue generators, while $5.6 billion came from public money and student fees.

These are enormous figures, and they are likely to continue to grow. Taxpayers have an obvious interest in tracking this money — how and where it is spent and why. Large amounts of revenue easily attract corruption and misuse.

Congress may step in and pass NIL regulations that apply to all states. In the meantime, Utah, with its hard-earned reputation as a well-managed state, ought to be a leader in openness and accountability, not in pushing secrecy out of concern for wins on the field or the court.