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Why 9th NIL hearing showed how far away Congress is from NCAA's federal solution

Nakos updated headshotby:Pete Nakos09/21/23


Much of the discourse at Wednesday’s legislative hearing on NIL centered around pay-for-play and NIL collectives. With two sitting athletic directors as witnesses and a former Heisman Trophy winner as a third, the narrative of what the NCAA wants to see fixed in college sports was clear. 

More guidelines. A different framework. Ability to crack down on inducements. 

But the fourth witness, the only one that has a track record of working in athlete’s rights, steered the conversation away from name, image and likeness at times. Maddie Salamone – the former Division I Student-Athlete Advisory Committee chair and current vice president of the College Football Players Association – turned part of the conversation to athletes’ health and oversight. 

That wasn’t exactly her point, though. Salamone called out the NCAA for “abdicating its throne” and not enforcing NIL policy, instead skirting around lawsuits as proof for an antitrust exemption. She also called out legislators for trying to pack too much into their bill drafts.  

“Some of the issues that are being addressed in many of these bills, it’s like everything and the kitchen sink,” she said. “What I alluded to earlier with legislators trying to put things they think will be a good idea and in practice work, may not actually address the deeper issues that athletes have and what they really want fixed. 

“I’m generally of the opinion that they should be separate. These bills are trying to do too much. They’re ineffective and will not pass. That’s my opinion.”

Maddie Salamone’s comments drive discussion on athletes’ welfare

After nine legislative hearings on NIL in the last three years and change, it was a stark difference from some of the events that have included elected officials bringing out a Florida helmet to the meetings. 

The former Duke lacrosse player was the only witness to bring up the idea of collective bargaining on Wednesday. Instead of examining how that could come to be, Salamone’s points steered the conversation away from NIL. In the final minutes of the hearing, committee chairman U.S. Rep. Roger Williams (R-TX) had to bring the discussion back to collectives after Salamone answered a line of questioning around athletes’ health and oversight in the current state of college athletics. 

“These are young people we need to care about and there are many people who care about them,” she said. “They get treated like a sack of meat a lot of times. But they’re human beings. Coaches tend to lose sight of that when it comes to winning games, treating it like a job and forgetting even the best bosses in business care about their employees and treat them well. Treat them with respect. Care about them personally. 

“I think we need to bring more of that mindset into coaching and administration and getting to know the athletes – what they care about, not just what they can do on the field or the court.”

Rep. Kweisi Mfume (D-MD), who recently introduced the Jordan McNair Student Athlete Heat Fatality Prevention Act, emphasized the role coaches can play in the college sports experience, whether it be good or bad. 

Gene Smith uses Marvin Harrison Jr. injury as example of oversight

Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith also weighed in. One of the four witnesses, Smith is now 67. He started off as an athletic director at 29 at Eastern Michigan. Testifying in front of Congress and asking the federal government for help in NCAA governance was something he never hoped to do. 

But he was in agreement with Salamone and Mfume in regard to athletes’ welfare and oversight, using Marvin Harrison Jr.’s injury in the semifinals last year as an example of how the Buckeyes prioritize athletes.  

“This is about leadership, this is about culture,” he said. “We probably could have won the national championship last year if we had let Marvin Harrison continue to play. But at the end of the day, he had a bad hit, so we took him out. That was independent oversight. The coach had nothing to do with that. What she’s talking about is 100% right. 

“Structurally, you need to put the people in place who are the experts to make those types of decisions. My coaches are experts on the Xs and Os. Not a doctor. I’m not sure if any of you saw, but we just had a session recently on CNN with one of our former athletes [Harry Miller], who walked into our coach’s office and said he wanted to kill himself. Fortunately, we’ve empowered our coach to make sure they’re very sensitive and humanistic in those situations and listen, and then determine who’s the expert to help that individual. That’s the culture you have to create.”

NIL hearing was ‘disappointing’

For some who tuned into the legislative hearing, the pivot to athletes’ health was a positive. It put into context just how different NIL is from other issues that need to be addressed and not clumped into one piece of legislation. 

Not everyone viewed it in that light. Lawyer Darren Heitner, who reviews NIL contracts for a number of athletes and collectives, said he thought the hearing was another missed chance to discuss the subject everyone was in attendance for: NIL. 

“No, in fact, it’s disappointing,” he said. “While athletes’ health and welfare should absolutely be a priority, this was a hearing, the ninth, that was supposed to be on NIL. And if you listen carefully to what Maddie Salamone said, who was really the impetus for the discussion shifting to athletes’ health and welfare, she doesn’t believe that there’s going to be any progress on NIL at the federal level because they can’t stay focused on NIL. 

“This was not the time to talk about health and safety, even though it was a priority for her.”

Wednesday’s discourse, however, was another reminder of how far away a federal bill truly is. Salamone made that point clearly, which is how the hearing turned into a referendum on athletes’ rights.

What comes next seems unknown.

If anything is truly clear, it’s that Sen. Ted Cruz‘s (R-TX) “60-40” prediction of an NIL bill being passed is far-fetched.