Hopes Fade for Imminent Federal Deal on College Athletes, Pressuring N.C.A.A.

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WASHINGTON — Congress is not expected to move this month to override a crush of state laws that, as soon as July 1, will challenge the N.C.A.A. rules that have kept college athletes from making money off their fame.

The absence of an accord, or even a clear timeline for one, by the start of July would be a blow to the N.C.A.A. and its most influential and wealthy conferences, which have spent many months and millions of dollars seeking intervention from Washington. Although an agreement could still emerge this year, the prospects for a federal measure to advance before the state laws have gone from a long shot toward essentially nonexistent.

“I know that that date is imminent, so I think it’s probably safe to say something is not going to make it through the halls of Congress by that date,” Senator Maria Cantwell, Democrat of Washington and the chair of the Senate committee that has been examining college sports issues, said after a hearing on Thursday. “But I do think that the deadline is continuing to put pressure on us to produce what that agreement could look like, and so I’m still hopeful that before we adjourn for the July Fourth recess, we’ll be able to say what the shape of that looks like.”

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Any coast-to-coast baseline standard that might be in effect early next month, though, will almost certainly have to come from the N.C.A.A. itself. With more state laws scheduled to come into force in the months ahead, public officials and college sports executives alike believe that changes or waivers to N.C.A.A. rules would amount to a stopgap.

On Capitol Hill on Thursday, when the Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation met for the second time in eight days to hear testimony about college sports, the divide between congressional negotiators was clear with a glance at the dais: Senator Roger Wicker of Mississippi, the panel’s ranking Republican, was absent. On Wednesday, Wicker, who has particular influence because of the Senate’s 50-50 split, announced a survey of college athletes “to solicit their views on what they would like to see” in a federal measure. Responses are due on June 25, around the time senators are expected to leave Washington for a recess that is tentatively scheduled to last until July 12.

Asked in an interview outside the Senate chamber on Thursday afternoon whether he saw a path to a deal by the end of this month, Wicker replied, “It would be a surprise to me at this point.”

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Even before word of Wicker’s survey this week, hopes for rapid legislation were dim because senators have been divided on the breadth of any bill. Democrats have been urging far-reaching legislation that would include, for example, greater health care guarantees for athletes. Some pressed for schools to share revenues with players. Republicans have balked at some of the ideas, and they have also sought legal protections for the college sports industry.

“What we need to do is pass a targeted bill that deals with the issue at hand and leave the more complex issues of benefits and health care, extended scholarships for later,” said Wicker, who added, “Once we agree on the scope, we can pretty much get it done.”

But it has been clear for months that lawmakers, including some of Washington’s fiercest skeptics of the N.C.A.A., were in nowhere near as much a rush for action as college sports officials.

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Those athletics executives have operated for years with a bedrock principle — that athletes should play in exchange for no more than the cost of attendance — under mounting siege. In 2019, a law to let college athletes hire agents, cut endorsement deals and monetize their social media platforms cleared the California Legislature and the governor’s desk with ease.

That measure is not currently scheduled to take effect until 2023. California’s move, though, sparked a stampede in other statehouses to similarly subvert N.C.A.A. rules. Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, New Mexico and Texas have laws that are scheduled to take effect on July 1. Illinois could very well join them then, and still more states have measures set to come online in the coming years. None of the proposals that have become law call for schools to pay athletes directly.

Squeezed in state legislatures, college sports officials looked to Washington for relief and argued that a national standard was vital. Despite sustained lobbying, no legislation has moved beyond a committee.

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Without the federal law it has craved, the N.C.A.A. will have just a handful of options, none of them particularly appealing to many executives. One possibility would be to approve a set of new rules, or perhaps a waiver of existing policies, as soon as next week to let athletes have more financial opportunities as the state laws begin to take effect. That approach, though, could prove a fleeting salve: Some state laws that are expected to go into effect later are designed to give players more rights than the N.C.A.A. has signaled it might grant on its own.

Another strategy would be litigation. Although the college sports industry prevailed in a case in the early 1990s after Nevada threatened N.C.A.A. procedures, experts have warned that a legal fight this time could involve multiple fronts with, in turn, scattered results. Even if the N.C.A.A. or its allies could win, many executives fear that courtroom battles over the precise nature and scope of expanded rights for players would harden public opinion against a juggernaut that has spent most of its recent history embattled for one reason or another.

One approach, of course, would be to do nothing at all. But that would expose the N.C.A.A. to the very danger it has long warned about: different rules for different states and schools, imperiling fair play and recruiting and assuredly provoking an uproar on campuses that might be left behind. Commissioners have predicted a recruiting arms race of sorts, with states trying to one-up each other with laws and benefits that could prove more enticing to prospective college athletes.

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The N.C.A.A. did not immediately comment on Thursday.

In written and oral testimony on Thursday, senators heard arguments in support of broad changes around the rules that keep athletes from earning money off their renown.

“By freeing student-athletes from their fears and concerns about extra benefits and rules like that, N.I.L. legislation also has the opportunity to help student-athletes become entrepreneurs and create their own opportunities in an arena they already know well: their sports,” said Kaira Brown, a sprinter at Vanderbilt. Each of the four witnesses, the ranks of which included three current or former college athletes, expressed support for federal legislation.

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“What we want to avoid is such heavy restrictions that athletes cannot actually monetize their N.I.L. as they would like to,” said Sari Cureton, who played basketball at Georgetown and noted, “It’s our bodies that have built this industry.”

But now the college sports industry is bracing for an era they expect will be marked by chaos and uncertainty. Senator Richard Blumenthal, Democrat of Connecticut, was skeptical. He was also unsympathetic to the executives who could be scrambling in the weeks ahead.

“Their hopes are dashed, but their hopes were always futile with the mind-set that they had,” he said in his office. “They have failed to see the broader interests of the athletes. They’ve approached it from a very narrow standpoint of what works for them and not for the athletes.”

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