If you’re mad about Power 5 lobbying over NIL issues, you don’t understand how business gets done

In fiscal year 2018, the Southeastern Conference reported that it had earned revenue of $627 million, a number that seemed certain to escalate when it was revealed that the league was about to move its top weekly football game from CBS to ABC/ESPN for significantly more money. The SEC itself may not be a billion-dollar concern, but if you add in all the revenue from its 14 member schools, the league crosses that threshold easily.

In such a circumstance, it should surprise you if the SEC is not spending some of that money to lobby Congress to enhance the circumstances for its operations.

The Associated Press reported Tuesday that the conference spent $140,000 during 2020’s first quarter — of a total of $350,000 by the conferences known as the Power 5 — to lobby Congress regarding the creation of legislation that would impact the move to return name, image and likeness rights to college athletes.

The American Medical Association has spent nearly $7 million on lobbying in 2020. The National Association of Realtors has spent almost $14 million, according to OpenSecrets.org. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which has spent $21 million, finds Power 5-type lobbying money in between the cushions of its couch.

So it’s uncertain whether the Power 5 money would be enough to get the attention of anyone in Washington. It’s also unclear to some who follow college sports, apparently, why the conferences were asking lobbying firms to help them in the Capitol.

The conferences are being criticized now for spending on lobbyists when cuts are being made in various athletic departments because of the COVID-19 pandemic, including staff furloughs and layoffs. This is like yelling at a couple who bought a new car a month before a flood wiped out their home. It surely was not clear in January and February what March would bring to the world, and to the world of college athletics.

Even more problematic, though, are the harangues alleging the leagues are lobbying to “restrict” the earning rights of college athletes.

Sorry. That’s just not correct.

At this point, the lobbying of Washington is an effort to create a cohesive set of regulations in the NIL space for college athletes that both would supersede various state laws and possibly mitigate the impact of future NCAA rules on existing litigation. This is not as titillating as declaring that the people running college sports are horrid and self-interested. It’s actually rather boring. Sometimes, the truth is.

Indeed, the people in charge of college athletics do not have history on their side in this discussion. They fought the O’Bannon suit. They’ve denied NIL rights to athletes for decades. They even placed themselves into a difficult position in this conversation by lobbying furiously against the various state NIL bills, most notably the Fair Pay to Play Act in California.

The opposition to California’s bill, however bad it looked, was more about concern in dealing with a patchwork of various state rules regarding student-athlete NIL rights than opposition to the concept. The NCAA has known since at least 2018 that it was going to have to move in the direction of allowing its athletes more freedom to earn money through endorsements, personal appearances and business opportunities. It was hoping to do it on its own timeline, when free of litigation still in the legal system that complicates the process.

When the Rice Commission issued its report in April of that year, its decision not to push the organization on NIL rights was explained as a concession to cases still in the courts. When California began work on its bill in early 2019, however, the NCAA no longer had the freedom to follow its own schedule.

The NCAA soon launched its own working group to address possible solutions to the NIL issue for college athletes. Chaired by Big East commissioner Val Ackerman and Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith, the proposal that resulted was imperfect but still thoughtful, cogent and mostly workable.

It was ripped by many in the media and even various government officials, including a state legislator in Florida and two United States senators. With no current activity in any NCAA sport, the most popular college sport has become bashing the people who run things. No facts are required, which makes it easy to play.

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