The fight to improve compensation and labor rights for college athletes has reached the 2020 Democratic presidential primary, thanks to the only candidate who was a major college athlete himself.
New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, who played college football at Stanford University, on Thursday unveiled a sweeping plan that his campaign called an effort to “end exploitation in sports,” for college athletes, professional cheerleaders and women in sports at the professional and amateur levels alike.
As part of his plan, Booker pledged to back legislation in Congress that would allow all college athletes to earn money from their names, images and likenesses. That would provide a federal solution to an issue that has roiled major college sports for a decade, ever since former UCLA basketball player Ed O’Bannon sued the NCAA for similar rights to profit from the money his name and image generated for his school and others.
Such legislation would expand on a bill California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) signed into law last week. That law requires California schools to allow athletes to profit from their names, images and likenesses ― through product endorsements and advertisements ― starting in 2023, making it the first state to guarantee college athletes such rights.
For Booker, though, the name, image and likeness issue could only mark the beginning of his efforts to reshape college sports. Part of his detailed plan calls for establishing a federal commission that would oversee sports in the U.S., a promise likely to set off alarm bells at the NCAA’s Indianapolis headquarters.
As president, the document states, Booker “would instruct federal antitrust agencies to use all of the enforcement tools at their disposal, including investigations and weighing in on key cases with [friend of the court] briefs, to crack down on practices that exploit and harm athletes in college and professional sports.”
That pledge ― if Booker were to follow through on it ― could drastically alter the landscape of college sports, and send the NCAA’s anachronistic version of “amateurism” the way of the Wing-T formation used in old-fashioned football games.
The systemic problems in sports are issues of economic justice and fairness. Just as we shouldn’t accept collusion, wage theft, and a massive gender pay gap in any other industry, we shouldn’t accept them in sports. Sen. Cory Booker
A number of lawyers, athletes and reformists have long seen antitrust law as the best legal avenue for winning wholesale change to the NCAA’s model and providing the compensation and labor rights for the athletes that lawmakers like Booker increasingly believe they deserve.
Their basic argument ― that the NCAA and its member schools have illegally conspired to artificially suppress the market value of college athletes’ labor ― has found a receptive audience in federal courts, which have repeatedly found the NCAA in violation of antitrust laws. But judges have also stopped short of overhauling the NCAA, and have instead relied on piecemeal changes that leave amateurism altered but largely intact.
Federal law enforcement agencies like the Department of Justice and FBI have also been loathe to use antitrust law against the NCAA, even when the opportunity has presented itself. The government’s recent landmark case against alleged corruption in college basketball, for instance, offered a prime opportunity for the federal agencies to go after the NCAA on antitrust grounds. Instead, they effectively took the side of the NCAA and its member universities and merely played whack-a-mole against the black market the NCAA’s own rules has created.
Booker, though, seems willing to change that calculus. The DOJ has threatened the NCAA with antitrust scrutiny before, and the mere possibility that the feds might be serious has led to immediate rule changes to benefit athletes. No major antitrust cases face the NCAA at present, but labor lawyers who have argued the biggest previous cases on the amateurism issue haven’t closed the door on future legal action. A president ready to back an antitrust fight, or even lead one, against the NCAA could hasten the sort of large-scale reform that many see as inevitable.
That sort of reform, to the NCAA and other powerful governing bodies that oversee sports in the U.S., is central to Booker’s broader plan to alter the world of athletics as president. It’s a fight he sees as linked to the larger discussions of economic exploitation, gender discrimination and social justice causes that have been central to the race for the Democratic presidential nomination.
“The systemic problems in sports are issues of economic justice and fairness,” Booker said in a statement.
As a football player at Stanford, Booker “witnessed firsthand how college athletics uses free and cheap labor to extract value from young people — particularly Black men, who make up a disproportionate share of athletes in revenue-generating sports — to the tune of billions of dollars in profits,” his campaign said in releasing his plan.
As president, Booker would establish the U.S. Commission on Integrity in Sports and have it address many of the most controversial and exploitative practices that have drawn attention and scrutiny in recent years. Issues tackled by the commission would include wage theft, unfair labor practices, health concerns, gender discrimination and the sexual abuse of athletes that has been widespread in U.S. Olympic programs.
“For too long, we have allowed exploitative practices in professional and college sports to fester — somehow treating sports as different from our broader economy,” he said. “But sports at these levels is a multi-billion dollar business. Just as we shouldn’t accept collusion, wage theft, and a massive gender pay gap in any other industry, we shouldn’t accept them in sports.”
A litany of government departments ― including Labor, Education, Health and Human Services, and Justice ― as well as numerous congressional committees are charged with overseeing youth, amateur and professional sports in the U.S. Booker’s commission would seek to bring them together under one umbrella, allowing current and former athletes, policy experts and academics, lawmakers and government officials to jointly oversee and reform the NCAA, the U.S. Olympic Committee and other national governing bodies in the sports world.
Booker’s plan takes special aim at college sports, with compensation and labor rights at center stage. He would charge the commission with making recommendations for providing college athletes the right to unionize ― as Northwestern University football players tried, unsuccessfully, to do in 2015 ― and devising a compensation model for the athletes.
But Booker also wants the commission to address other key issues college athletes have raised, in areas where studies have shown the NCAA’s policies inadequate. His plan would work to improve access to quality health care for athletes, particularly those suffering concussions and brain injuries; enhance their opportunities to cover medical costs stemming from sports-related injuries; give athletes more transfer rights between schools, and prod the NCAA to improve their educational outcomes.
The plan calls on the NCAA and member schools to annually report data “relating to athletes’ educational outcomes, health and safety, freedom to choose their desired course of study, and other key measures of athletes’ well being” to the Department of Education.
Along with its focus on college athletics, Booker’s plan promises action on other topics that have emerged in women’s sports in recent years, including the U.S. women’s national soccer team’s equal pay battle against the U.S. Soccer Federation, the wage and hour complaints cheerleaders have filed against NFL and NBA teams, and the sexual abuse scandals that have rocked USA Gymnastics and the U.S. Olympic Committee.
Booker’s plan also would strengthen compliance requirements for Title IX, the 1972 gender equity law, to boost opportunities for women in scholastic sports.
Booker also said his support for legislation to provide federal employment protections to LGBTQ+ people would bolster efforts to prevent discrimination against them in sports. And he would crack down on potentially collusive anti-worker efforts to suppress protests from Black NFL players like former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick.