The latest opposition to the NCAA is coming from an unlikely place: The U.S. House of Representatives.
On Thursday, Rep. Mark Walker (R-NC) introduced the Student-Athlete Equity Act, a bill that aims to hit the NCAA where it hurts the most: in the tax code. Currently, the only compensation college athletes in this country receive for their labor comes in the form of scholarships and having educational costs covered by the university. If a student-athlete sells an autograph, promotes a lacrosse stick brand on their Instagram, or accepts a free tattoo from a fan, it counts as an NCAA violation under the current system.
But Walker’s bill would amend the definition of a qualified amateur sports organization in the tax code, and remove this restriction on student-athletes using or being compensated for the use of their name, image, and likeness.
“We’re not asking the NCAA or the schools to spend a dime on these athletes,” Walker told ThinkProgress in a phone interview on Friday. “We’re asking for them to have the same rights to the free market that you and I have.”
It’s no coincidence that Walker is introducing this bill during March Madness — the men’s NCAA Division I basketball tournament, which begins on Tuesday, is the college sports cartel’s most egregious showcase of athlete exploitation. The television networks, sponsors, NCAA, universities, coaches, and trainers all rake in millions, while the players get no share of the haul.
This arrangement has bothered Walker for decades. He first became aware of the inequities in this system back in the early 1990s, when the University of Michigan’s Fab Five — the Wolverines’ 1991 recruiting class considered by many to be the best of all time — took the basketball world by storm, and, in many ways, changed the face of college basketball forever. While three of the Fab Five — Chris Webber, Jalen Rose, and Juwan Howard — went on to have long NBA careers, Jimmy King only spent a couple of years in the league, and Ray Jackson never made it to the pros.
That didn’t sit well with Walker. “Everyone made mint from them, everyone had their hands in the cookie jar, but two guys never made any money off of this,” he said. “It got me thinking about the whole system, watching how it operates.”
Jay Allred, an advocate for college athlete protection in North Carolina, said that Walker’s bill would be a great step forward for student-athletes.
“Only two percent of these kids are going to go pro, according to the NCAA. But, you know, there’s a lot of kids that have a great earning potential while they’re in college, and they should be allowed to make that money,” he says.
Allred warns that Walker is likely to see fierce resistance from the NCAA, along with the most powerful college athletic departments in the country. He used the case of Zion Williamson — the freshman basketball phenom at Duke, who is projected to be the No. 1 overall pick in the NBA draft this summer — to prove his point.
“[If Walker’s bill became law], then at age 16, Nike could have said, ‘Zion, we want to sign you to a multi-million dollar contract, right now.,'” Allred said. “But if Nike’s able to sign into a multi-million dollar contract right now, there’s going to be less incentive for Nike to go out there and sponsor all these universities to the level that they sponsor them. I think that’s going to be a big issue for them.”
The exact details of Duke’s current contract with Nike, which runs through 2027, are not public; however, Nike has deals to the tune of $250 million with other prominent athletics departments.
Of course, Walker might not have to look outside of Congress for roadblocks. He is already receiving pushback from his fellow Republicans in the House, who would rather Walker focus his effort on other matters, such as the daily duel with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA). Plus, fighting for the rights of student-athletes — especially the young, black men who make up the bulk of the athletes in the highest profile college sports, such as men’s basketball and football — is not exactly a pillar of the GOP platform.
But Walker is undeterred. He’s logged many hours meeting with the NCAA, and listening to their empty promises. He sees no motivation on the NCAA’s part to resolve this, and he recognizes the way the current amateurism model is exploiting minorities and low-income families.
“A lot of these student-athletes come from impoverished communities, and there is a lot of money made on the backs of these young men and women. And these students, they can fight in the war, but they can’t have any access to their image or likeness,” Walker said.
“I say, if you see injustice and you don’t do something about it, I think, shame on you. It doesn’t mean there aren’t other battles to fight.”
The bill already has bipartisan support — the lead cosponsor of the bill is Representative Cedric Richmond (D-LA) — and Walker feels very optimistic about its future. Since the bill is targeting the tax code, it will have to go through the House Committee on Ways and Means, so his next step is to meet with them and get a markup on the calendar. From there, he hopes there will be enough support in the committee to send the bill to the House for a vote. With luck, his bill could be enacted as early as next year. Walker plans to continue this fight long after March Madness has subsided.
“I would not spend this much time or political capital on this if it was just for show,” he said. “This is genuinely a place in our society where there is injustice.”