Current and former college athletes lend their voices to NIL debate in Senate hearing

Thursday's hearing of the Senate Commerce Committee offered the first opportunity for current and former college student-athletes to lend their voices to the debate in Congress on issues of name, image and likeness that will drastically change the experience of NCAA athletics.

Former UCLA women's track athlete Christina Chenault and former Georgetown women's basketball player Sari Cureton were joined by Vanderbilt track athlete Kaira Brown.The panel also included Martin McNair, the father of former Maryland football player Jordan McNair. The younger McNair passed away from medical complications after collapsing during preseason conditioning three years ago.

Congress has become the arena for debating these issues as the NCAA has sought a federal pathway to resolving the NIL challenges facing the organization. At least 19 states have passed laws related to NIL, including eight in which the measure will either take effect July 1 or could be put into place by schools at any time. The laws conflict with the NCAA rules restricting players from receiving compensation on the status of athletes.

Adding to the challenge, the NIL laws passed are not uniform. So barring NCAA legislation before next month, there will be differing rules and regulations that must be adhered to and require disparate oversight.

College athletes testified Thursday for a congressional panel. (Photo: Kirby Lee, USA TODAY Sports)

Thursday's hearing, at certain points, addressed NIL issues. Brown noted in her statement to the committee that she is unable to mention her status as a college athlete when trying to advertise herself as a trainer. That would be seen as an NCAA rules violation.

The female athletes all pointed out inequities in the system that provide greater resources to football and men's basketball. NIL would be one way for women to have opportunities to be paid and also gain exposure for their sport. This could include monetizing their social media accounts or their personal business entities. 

"By allowing student-athletes the opportunity to better explore their own avenues of revenue or other items outside of the college individual setting, you're empowering them," Brown said. "If I can go outside to Nike or Athleta and know from there I'm valued, I can bring that sense of the value back to my school."

MORE: Name, image, likeness bill may be on shaky ground

While NIL issues are getting the most attention due to the July 1 deadline, the physical and mental health of student-athletes was a major theme in senators' lines of questioning. 

Martin McNair's involvement on the panel was emblematic of those concerns. 

McNair advocated for student health as a primary part of any bill, even more than the issues around pay. He noted there hasn't been a death in the NFL since Minnesota Vikings offensive lineman Korey Stringer died after a workout in 2001. There have been 30 workout deaths among NCAA football players since 2000, McNair said.

"The NFL has the resources to put the right systems in place financially," he said. "We have to put the baseline systems in place. The NCAA has to put the baseline systems in place. … We need to keep young people safe."

Questions of student-athletes also focused on medical concerns in the treatment of injuries, including the ability to get second opinions; the availability of mental health resources and concerns about sexual assault. 

They all detailed an inherent distrust of athletic departments to handle sensitive issues. 

"We're underestimating the interest of these coaches in winning games," Cureton said. "We're underestimating the interest of the athletic department in protecting their image publicly. Athletes are told to report things in-house, but when it comes down to that, there's still the interest that wins out of winning games, keeping your jobs, maintaining the image of the organization that is put over the interest of student-athletes' health and well-being."

The lack of resources was also notable. Cureton said Georgetown had one in-house expert for mental health to deal with more than 700 athletes.

Chenault said time commitments restrict potential educational choices for athletes. While only 20 hours of team activities are allowed each week, she cited a Pac-12 study that showed athletes could spend up to 50 hours on their sport. Chenault said travel for competitions was from Thursday through the weekend, making classes and majors unavailable for some because they required Thursday or Friday attendance. 

"I think a lot of colleges use 'trust the process' to get buy-in from a lot of their athletes," Chenault, who has a bachelor's and master's degree from UCLA, said. "From an athlete standpoint, I don't think they realize right away … that this is a form of educational exploitation."

Political parties clash over details

Unlike many issues facing Congress, there is actual agreement between both political parties to find a solution that would codify rules across all 50 states. However, getting them to agree on the specifics of a solution has been elusive — even with an agreement on the principle that something must be done to improve the situation for athletes who are part of the billion-dollar enterprise.

To illustrate the divide, questioning on Thursday was almost almost exclusively done by Democrats because of differences between the sides.

Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), the ranking member of his party on the committee, did not attend. He took issue with the timing and manner in which committee chair, Sen. Maria Cantwell, (D-Wash.), organized the hearing, which came eight days after another hearing by the committee on this topic.

He said in a statement Wednesday he will undertake a survey of college athletes designed to solicit their views on what they would like to see in NIL legislation.

Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.), who authored a bill in hopes of bringing Republicans and Democrats to a compromise, attended and asked questions. His proposal would give the NCAA the legal protection it is seeking from antitrust lawsuits that challenge its athlete-compensation rules. 

The scope of the questioning Thursday indicates that a clean NIL bill doesn't appear to have support of Democrats. They want further accommodations for athletes beyond compensation. Republicans haven't yet been as willing to include as many of those concerns in any proposals.

"They (colleges) are now coming to the table because they face a patchwork of laws that's desperately inconvenient for them," Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) said when addressing the panel. "But your testimony shows that athletes want more than just being shown the money. It's about future and career and basic safety and health standards."

It's clear there is much work to be done, making the prospect of finding a long-term solution for the NCAA and athletes resemble more of a marathon than sprint.

"Congress can't pass an NIL law that just ignores the rights of students," Cantwell said in her opening comments. "It also has to hear about the experiences in health care and scholarship that make important rights issues so central to this debate."

Contributing: USA TODAY Sports' Steve Berkowitz.

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