When Senator Ron Wyden played basketball at the University of California, Santa Barbara, he got paid — just not on the court.
In the late ’60s, the Division I ballplayer had enough downtime to get a job raking leaves with other scholarship athletes.
That would never happen now, he tells Deadspin.
“The [students] who do so much to make it possible for all that revenue to come in, really aren’t even there with a seat at the table,” Wyden says. “It’s an imbalance of power. And I want to change that.”
Nothing from his playing days resembles what he sees on campuses today. Lavish facilities, training experts, nutritionists, corporate sponsored stadiums, multimillion-dollar coaching salaries, billion-dollar TV deals: that’s college sports in 2020.
Today, Wyden (D-OR) is one of ten senators who have co-signed the “College Athletes Bill of Rights” proposal. But he is one of only four Senate sponsors who actually played college sports.
Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ), who played two seasons of football at Stanford, introduced the proposal on August 13. Other co-sponsors include Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), who was captain of the Dartmouth squash team, and Senator Chris Murphy (D-CT), who had a stint in Division III tennis.
The College Athletes Bill of Rights attempts to build on name, image, and likeness (NIL) legislation presented to Congress by the NCAA in July, and guarantees a basic degree of protection for student athletes, including fair and equitable compensation, health coverage, safety guidelines and scholarship preservation. Although the NCAA has its own NIL proposal, legislators like Senator Booker see this as an opportunity to negotiate for broader protections for college athletes. Booker’s proposal not only allows athletes to profit off of their name, image and likeness, but also incentivizes schools to put more of an emphasis on college athlete graduation rates. It includes creating an oversight panel, led by current and former athletes, to give them “a meaningful voice and level the playing field,” and does away with penalties regarding transfers and withdrawing from National Letters of Intent for recruits. All of these reforms are aimed squarely at what the proposal calls, the “NCAA’s history of athlete exploitation.”
“I barely played sports in college,” Murphy tells Deadspin, reminiscing on his season playing tennis at Williams College. “[But] my limited history as an athlete gives me a perspective on how important sports is.”
Murphy has been vocal for a long time about the need to reform college sports. He published an op-ed with Draymond Green arguing that college sports cannot, and should not, return to normal after the pandemic. The Connecticut Democrat frequently uses social media to share his thoughts on the exploitation of athletes, and creates videos criticizing the enterprise of March Madness — which generates 75% of the NCAA’s annual revenue. It’s a cash cow for schools, conferences, broadcast partners and corporate sponsors. Everyone wins — everyone except the athletes actually competing.
Murphy is, by his own admission, a “huge” college sports fan. But he wants to fix the underlying inequities plaguing the system.
“I just think it’s time for us to recognize that student-athletes in big-time college sports are getting abused,” Murphy tells Deadspin.
Booker was one of those “big-time” college athletes at Stanford. He says the issue of college athletes is “deeply personal.”
“I truly believe that I would not be here today if it were not for college sports and the lessons I learned from football, but not all college athletes have the same experience,” he tells Deadspin. “The unfortunate truth is that 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.”
Booker recalls friends losing their scholarships due to injury, or teammates leaving campus with a mountain of medical debt. These are issues that still happen today, Booker says, and they’re addressed in his proposal.
One of the biggest health issues that can affect college students is Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE). Every school can now identify the connection between contact sports and head trauma. This Bill of Rights calls on the NCAA to properly follow concussion protocols, arguing that the NCAA’s concussion guidelines have become “more like suggestions than rules.”
For the co-sponsors of the proposal, fairness in college athletics is also a civil rights issue. College athletes in revenue-generating sports are, according to Murphy, “making billions of dollars, largely for white males, and the players are largely African American.” Deadspin recently published a report that found men’s college basketball and football players deserve up to one million dollars in compensation per year.
“Even when I was playing back in the 1990s,” Booker says, “college sports was a hugely profitable industry that operated like a business.” But now the industry has grown into a $15 billion dollar enterprise. Just like the ’90s and decades before then, athletes are still unpaid and denied the right to profit off their name, image and likeness.
“There was nothing resembling the kind of money that is on the table now,” Wyden said of his time playing hoops in the late sixties.
“Now it’s all about enormous sums of money, huge amounts of revenue, huge salaries for coaches and executives. And it just seems to me to be an environment that cries out for some basic fairness for a college athlete.”
This year’s pandemic, too, exposes the hypocrisy of amateurism in college sports. Colleges across the country are moving online or becoming epicenters for infectious spread of disease. Yet for many conferences, fall sports are still on schedule and teams are still on campus.
“It’s pretty clear that it’s money that’s driving these decisions, rather than what’s best for the athletes,” says Murphy. “If the general student population isn’t coming back to the dorms, then the [athletes] shouldn’t be on campus.”
“If you aren’t going to have two different sets of rules,” Murphy continues, “then treat the players as employees rather than pretending they are students when they clearly are not.”
But even the conversation about postponing college sports due to COVID-19 is one Booker never believed he would have. “The cancellation of college sports was totally avoidable,” he says, pointing to South Korea as an example. The country recorded its first coronavirus infection the same day as the U.S. confirmed their first case. But South Korea was able to get the epidemic under control in a matter of weeks. Because they flattened the curve, the country’s premier baseball league, the KBO, took the field on May 5.
“Right now, [South Korea] has live sports with fans in the stands while we have parents and students alike unsure about whether it is safe to go back to school,” the former tight end says. “It is understandable that many are questioning whether we can have college sports in a way that ensures the participating athletes are kept healthy and safe.”
“This isn’t rocket science,” Wyden adds. “Sports, like everything else, cannot be oblivious to questions that transcend sports like health.”
I asked the Oregon Senator if he supports decisions made by conferences, like the west coast’s Pac-12, who canceled its fall sports seasons due to the pandemic. “I support making decisions grounded in science and safety first, period, full stop,” he responded.
Despite a pandemic, an economic recession, ongoing protests over racial injustice, and an election year, these senators believe the time to fight for fairness in college sports is now.
“There is such a long history of telling those who have faith in justice, that now’s not the time. It’ll be better if you wait,” Wyden said. That won’t happen this time to college athletes, he added.
Senator Gillibrand did not respond to our request for comment.
The proposal is set to be introduced in the Senate within the next few months,where it will likely be met with some bipartisan support. Florida Senator and Deadspin reader, Marco Rubio, introduced his own narrower legislation that would allow college athletes to profit off their name, image, and likeness. There is also a 2019 bill in the House of Representatives, sponsored by North Carolina Republican Rep. Mark Walker, that amends the rights of college athletes to profit from their NIL; the bill is still in committee.
But the most vocal and strongest advocates for reform see the Bill of Rights as the more ideal legislation. As National College Players Association Executive Director Ramogi Huma told CNN, the reforms it offers “address racial injustice and exploitation that is rampant in NCAA sports.”
Critics often point to an education itself and the scholarships that athletes receive as compensation enough for their commitments. But the system’s failure to meet the financial needs of students can be seen across various aspects of campus life. In fact, a survey in April by the Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice reported that almost one quarter of Division I athletes surveyed were food insecure in the 30 days prior to the survey, and nearly 14 percent were experiencing homelessness in the past year. Another stunning fact the proposal itself reveals is that just 55 percent of Black male athletes from the Power 5 conference athletes graduate within six years.
“These are really important questions,” says Murphy. “I want to save college athletics. I just think we’re at this point where we have to save it from itself.”