August 13, 2020

Van Hollen, Booker, Senators Announce College Athletes Bill of Rights

Landmark proposal would guarantee fair and equitable compensation, enforceable safety standards, and improved educational opportunities for all college athletes

U.S. Senators Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), Cory Booker (D-NJ), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Chris Murphy (D-CT), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Ron Wyden (D-OR), Mazie Hirono (D-HI), Kamala Harris (D-CA), Bernie Sanders (I-VT), and Brian Schatz (D-HI), today announced the framework for a new college athletes bill of rights that will advance justice and opportunity for college athletes. The proposal willguarantee fair and equitable compensation, enforceable health and safety standards, and improved educational opportunities for all college athletes. 

College sports have the unique ability to transcend partisan divisions and cultural differences to unite millions of Americans as fans. Yet, college sports have also come to reflect many of the inequalities that permeate everyday life in America—where systems fail to protect those under the charge of others, where hard-working Americans are blocked from sharing in the profits they help create, and where systemic and structural racism disadvantage and exploit people of color. 

“For too long, college athletes have put their health and well-being on the line while boosting profits for everyone but themselves. Our plan lays the foundation for a just system that prioritizes safety and equity in college athletics,” said Senator Van Hollen.

Booker said, “As a former college athlete, this issue is personal to me. The NCAA has failed generations of young men and women even when it comes to their most basic responsibility—keeping the athletes under their charge healthy and safe. The time has come for change. We have an opportunity to do now what should have been done decades ago—to step in and provide true justice and opportunity for college athletes across the country. Our college athletes bill of rights establishes a new framework for fairness, equity, and safety in college athletics, and holds colleges accountable to these standards.”

“The present state of college athletics is undeniably exploitive. The literal blood, sweat, and tears of student athletes fuels a $14 billion industry, but until very recently, those students received little in return and were vulnerable to being tossed aside. Reforming this system is about basic justice: racial justice, economic justice, and health care justice,” Blumenthal said. “Our framework is centered around the principle of empowering athletes. We want to give college athletes the tools they need to protect their economic rights, pursue their education, prioritize their health and safety, and most critically, hold their schools and organizations like the NCAA accountable.”

Gillibrand said, “College athletes are an invaluable part of the college experience for so many of us who participated or watched from the stands. They stimulate the local economies of college towns across America and they deserve to have their voices heard. With inequalities at every level of our society laid bare by this pandemic, we can no longer wait to enact change. This legislation will set important guidelines to ensure our athletes are fairly compensated, protected, and have the opportunities they deserve. I’m proud to support this important legislation led by my friend Senator Booker.”

“Early last year, I set out to expose the inequities and civil rights issues in college sports and COVID-19 has only exacerbated them. We can’t return to business as usual—where a multi-billion dollar industry lines the pockets of predominately white executives all while majority-Black athletes can’t profit from their labor,” said Murphy. “The College Athletes Bill of Rights lays out the reforms college sports desperately need so we can finally put athletes economic rights, health and wellbeing, and educational opportunities first. This isn’t radical thinking—it’s just the right thing to do.”

“The NCAA’s priority should be the success, safety and well-being of student athletes at colleges and universities across the nation. Unfortunately, decades of history proves that has rarely been the case. While the organization rakes in billions of dollars off the backs of their athletes, the students are expected to be content with crumbs in comparison,” Wyden said. “These young athletes shouldn’t be forced to choose between the sport they love and their health, education or financial security. This new college student athletes bill of rights is a step towards ensuring safety, opportunity and accountability in college athletics.”

Hirono said, “Student athletes across the country have demanded that their voices be heard, and that the colleges they attend be held accountable in their responsibility to protect and provide for students. This comprehensive framework provides basic rights for student athletes. Without significant changes like the ones we are announcing, college sports will continue to perpetuate the pervasive inequalities in our society that especially disadvantage and exploit people of color.”

Sanders said, “It is ludicrous that the NCAA makes more than $1 billion a year off of college athletes, but will not allow these players to be paid, to own their own name or image, or to bargain collectively. In the midst of this pandemic, these athletes must have a seat at the table when their health and safety is on the line. These athletes are workers. It is long past time they be treated like it. That means safe working conditions, health care, collective bargaining rights, and fair wages for their labor."

Schatz said, "Too many student athletes aren't treated fairly by the college sports system, on or off the field. Our new bill will help them stay healthy and safe in competition, get the support they need in the classroom, and receive their fair share of the revenue they help generate."

Issues of fairness and justice in college athletics are deeply personal for Booker, a former high school All-American and Division 1 football player at Stanford University. He has publicly called for allowing college athletes to be compensated for their “name, image, and likeness” rights and requiring colleges and universities to cover athletes’ medical expenses for injuries sustained during college competition for at least 10 years after eligibility. In May, Booker and Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT) criticized the recommendations included in the NCAA’s Board of Governors report on college athlete compensation as insufficient and urged more sweeping reforms. In June, Booker and Blumenthal announced a bill -- the Collegiate Athlete Pandemic Safety Act -- to ban the use of legally dubious COVID-19 liability waivers, safeguard the scholarship of any athlete who decided not to participate this year out of fear of contracting COVID-19, and require athletic departments to comply with CDC-issued health and safety guidelines related to COVID-19. 

Formal legislation reflecting the framework unveiled today will be formally introduced in the Senate in the coming months. 

The framework is endorsed by the following groups: the United Steelworkers, the National College Players Association, the Sports Fans Coalition, Color of Change, College Athletes for No More Names, College Athletes Unity, Athletes Igniting Action, the Coalition for African Diaspora Student-Athletes, and the Authors of ‘NCAA Exploitation No More.’ 

The College Athletes Bill of Rights will provide:

  • Fair and equitable compensation. Allow college athletes to market their name, image, and likeness (NIL), both individually and as a group, with minimal restrictions and provide college athletes with revenue-sharing agreements with athletic associations, conferences, and their member schools that result in fair and equitable compensation. Though college athletes power a $15 billion industry featuring billion-dollar media deals, million-dollar coaching salaries, and luxury facilities rivaling those in professional leagues, college athletes are blocked from sharing in any of the profit they help create. Given the NCAA’s history of athlete exploitation, any legislation designed to provide fair and equitable compensation to college athletes should prevent the NCAA from restricting or regulating athlete compensation. College athletes should retain authority to determine and establish fair NIL agreements and have a clear voice in crafting rules at their college, instead of facing undue control and micromanagement primarily motivated by profit. 
  • Enforceable evidence-based health, safety, and wellness standards. Develop and aggressively enforce evidence-based health, safety, and wellness standards to ensure college athletes are kept healthy and protected from undue risk related to their participation in sports and the COVID-19 pandemic, and that coaches are held accountable for dangerous and abusive decision-making. Since 2000, more than 30 college football players have died from heat-related illnesses due to workouts that went too far, while the coaches and trainers responsible rarely face consequences. And for decades, the NCAA has failed to attach any penalties to their concussion guidelines -- making them more like suggestions than rules. 
  • Improved educational outcomes and opportunities. Provide college athletes with commensurate lifetime scholarships while increasing transparency and accountability to ensure college athletes receive the educational opportunities they deserve and have earned. Fewer than six in 10 entering college freshman students graduate in four years, and most of those students do not experience the strain and time constraints that college athletes face. Graduation rates for Black athletes are significantly lower than white athletes—just 55 percent of Black male athletes from the Power 5 conferences graduate within six years. Even more, some college athletes are pressured toward enrolling in less challenging classes and majors to allow for more time and focus on sports, or so that their coach can cash-in on bonuses associated with higher grade point averages, while other colleges engage in academic fraud to keep their athletes eligible. 
  • Comprehensive health care coverage and support with sport-related injuries. Increase financial assistance for current and former college athletes with medical bills and out-of-pocket expenses from sport-related injuries and illnesses from COVID-19. Currently, there is no uniformity in health care coverage across athletic programs or any consistent commitment to help with injuries that carry life-long consequences. Today, the college sports industry makes billions off the physical exploits of unpaid athletes, but bears almost no long term responsibility to pay for the damage done to athletes’ bodies during the time they wear the school’s uniform. 
  • Accountability across college sports. Require each school to provide more detailed annual public reporting that describes total sources of revenues and expenditures, including compensation for athletic department personnel and booster donations, as well as reporting on the number of hours athletes commit to athletic activities, including all mandatory workouts, “voluntary” workouts, film study, and game travel, and academic outcomes, disaggregated by athletic program, race and ethnicity, and gender. 
  • Freedom for college athletes to attend the institution of their choice. Ban restrictions and penalties that prevent college athletes from attending the institution of their choice, including penalties associated with transferring schools and penalties hidden behind National Letters of Intent. Too often, high school students are pressured to sign National Letters of Intent that perpetuate the power imbalance between athletes and the colleges that recruit them: the school can withdraw from the agreement without penalty, while the college athlete can lose a full season and year of eligibility if they decide to attend a different college. 
  • An oversight panel that gives athletes a real voice. Establish a permanent commission, led by current and former college athletes, policy experts, academics, and administration officials, to give athletes a meaningful voice and level the playing field by establishing baseline rules that govern college sports.