College sports is big money: Montana bill would give students a cut

Washington Grizzly Stadium sits empty. College sports is big money and some student athletes want a cut from the NCAA. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current file phot0)

(Daily Montanan) Rep. Jimmy Patelis played football for Montana Tech, and he may soon present his old No. 43 college jersey on the Montana House floor and pose a question.

“You know how many people would have bought this back when I was playing?” said the Billings Republican. He joked about the answer too. “I guarantee there would have been a lot of girls that bought this in the day and still might have this in their hope chests.”

Patelis, who plans to carry Sen. Ellie Boldman’s Senate Bill 248 onto the House floor, shared last week the two sides of his experience as a student athlete. Student athletes and their ability to earn income from their personas are the focus of SB248, part of a wave of similar legislation proposed around the country.

“I have a hall of fame ring and a crooked finger on it to show for all the work,” said Patelis, who played on a football scholarship. On the other hand, so to speak? “I was eating mac and cheese and struggling.”

Sen. Boldman, a Missoula Democrat, wants a new generation of student athletes to have the right to be fairly compensated for their names, images and likenesses — their NIL — and she hopes SB248 makes the case. Generally, she said, college athletics isn’t about pure amateurism anymore, and student athletes shouldn’t be treated as such.

The bill passed 45-5 in the Senate on Feb. 27 and was heard last week in the House Education Committee; the committee didn’t take immediate action, but the bill has bipartisan support and is expected to make its way to the House floor.

The legislation also brings Montana into the national conversation about how to modernize rules that govern student athletics. It’s an issue the NCAA controls, but in January, its council delayed action on updating NIL regulations. In the meantime, states are taking their own steps to address the matter.

An ESPN tally counts six states that have passed such laws and 16 others, including Montana, with legislation underway. The sports news outlet said the NCAA has asked Congress for help in creating a federal NIL law but also predicts state legislation will be falling into place first.

Also in play? On March 31, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear Alston v. NCAA, which doesn’t directly pertain to NIL but could affect the NCAA’s ability to limit the compensation student athletes receive.

In the meantime, Sen. Boldman said colleges will be recruiting, and powerhouse Florida’s law that lets student athletes profit from their personas takes effect July 1, 2021. (ESPN noted the NCAA could go to court and ask for an injunction, but that hasn’t happened yet.) Regardless, where will the up and coming athletic stars want to play?

“If you were a student athlete and you could sell your NIL as of July 1st in Florida, you’d want to play ball in Florida,” Boldman said. The senator who lives one block from the University of Montana and its Washington-Grizzly Stadium wants the Treasure State to have the same pull.

In the hearing, Boldman shared the evolution of the idea. The NCAA has been around since 1906, and it has prohibited student athletes from promoting or endorsing commercial products or services even if they aren’t paid to do so, she said.

“In Missoula, every single small and local business that has an ad has Monte the grizzly bear in it because you can’t pay the college kids themselves to participate,” Boldman said of the Grizzlies mascot in an earlier hearing.

But in a century, college sports have evolved into big business, Boldman said. Sports Illustrated reported the NCAA had topped $1 billion in revenue in 2017 for the first time, pulling in $1.1 billion. The NCAA notes the majority comes from Division I men’s basketball championship television and marketing rights, $821.4 million the same year. 

“Everyone is there to make money but the student athletes themselves,” Boldman said.

She said student athletes receive valuable benefits, such as scholarships, health care, and a stage to showcase their talents for professional scouts. But some athletes, such as those in tennis and rodeo, don’t always have the same platform.

Plus, Boldman noted the rules don’t apply equally to all students. A creative writing or journalism student, for example, is free in the summer to publish a book or freelance to earn money.  She pointed to bipartisan support around the nation — including U.S. Sens. Marco Rubio and Cory Booker, on opposite ends of the political spectrum — to end the current restriction. 

“It’s outdated, it’s archaic, and it’s wrong. It’s an issue of fundamental fairness,” Boldman said.

In a phone call, UM tennis athlete Julia Ronney said she’s sympathetic to the idea that not all student athletes would see the same benefits, but she generally supports the idea of changing the rules. If a school is getting positive attention from an athlete, she said, that athlete should benefit as well.

“If a student athlete is putting in the work and getting the recognition for it, they should be able to receive some sort of compensation for it,” Ronney said.

The university provides athletes with clothing during the school year and other support, she said. But tennis players may have three to five different rackets at a time at $200 to $300 each, travel is costly, and in the winter and summer, students have to provide their own sportswear.

“If a player was able to use their persona and likeness and all that good stuff to get some money, then that would obviously help with the cost of playing tournaments and traveling,” Ronney said.

Initially, the Montana Office of the Commissioner of Higher Education came out against the bill, arguing a patchwork of laws around the country would mean restrictions would be applied to students unequally. Last week, though, deputy legal counsel Helen Thigpen said the Montana University System had withdrawn its opposition after more investigation.

“The Office of the Commissioner of Higher Education is not opposed to the overall concept presented in SB248 and appreciates the sponsor’s continued interest in supporting student-focused issues,” Thigpen wrote in an email. “There are many variables that will need to be assessed if the legislation is adopted, including the outcome of pending litigation involving the NCAA at the U.S. Supreme Court, federal legislation, and proposed revisions to NCAA regulations. Ensuring that student athletes are students first will continue to be a priority within the university system.”

Although the NCAA has delayed a decision on NIL regulations, Boldman said she hopes the litany of legislation by states will put pressure on the governing agency to take action. She said the bill she drafted was written to align as closely as possible with the changes the NCAA has been expected to make; as written, SB248 would take effect in 2023.

In the meantime, she asked fellow lawmakers to be brave on behalf of students: “This is just the state of Montana telling them that in our state, you don’t have a right to tell our kids what they can’t own and what they have a right to own.”