The N.C.A.A., confronted with new scrutiny from the Justice Department, on Saturday all but abandoned plans for votes in the coming days that could have allowed student-athletes to profit off their fame, assuredly inflaming a debate that has drawn in governments across the country and convulsed the college sports industry.
One of the N.C.A.A.’s most powerful panels had been scheduled to consider new standards on Monday afternoon. But in a letter to the Justice Department on Saturday, the N.C.A.A.’s president, Mark Emmert, said he had “strongly recommended” that the association’s governing bodies wait, effectively stepping back from pledges to lawmakers and others that college sports leaders would act this winter on the issue known as name, image and likeness.
“We believe, as courts have regularly held, that our current amateurism and other rules are indeed fully compliant” with federal antitrust law, Emmert wrote to an assistant attorney general in a letter obtained by The New York Times. “Whenever we consider revisions to the rules, however, we of course receive input from many interested parties, and we welcome your invitation to consult with the department so that we can hear and fully understand its views as well.”
Top leaders in Division I, the arm of the association stocked with the brand-name powers of college sports, will almost certainly heed Emmert’s counsel and extend an issue that was consuming the N.C.A.A. before the coronavirus pandemic took hold across the United States and upended college sports. The existing business model of collegiate sports does not allow student-athletes to be compensated beyond the cost of attendance. That approach has gone largely unchanged even as college sports ballooned into a multibillion-dollar behemoth, and has been the target of increasing furor and focus from regulators, Congress, state legislatures, the courts and even from some athletes and coaches.
In response to that pressure — primarily in the form of laws from California, Florida and a handful of other states — the N.C.A.A.’s Division I Councilhad planned to weigh proposals to allow student-athletes to be paid by companies for the use of their name, image or likeness.
The proposals would open up potentially lucrative opportunities that have not previously been available to student-athletes, like earning money from social media posts. They would have certain limits and would, for example, forbid students from promoting sports betting. They would also allow colleges and universities to block agreements between players and companies if they conflict with “existing institutional sponsorship arrangements” and require students to disclose their name, image and likeness “activities to an independent third-party administrator” — provisions that prompted concerns among supporters of new rights for student-athletes.
Still, the ideas had emerged from months of private deliberations among college sports executives, who had long fretted over legislation in America’s statehouses that challenged the N.C.A.A.’s approach. Some changes by the N.C.A.A., some university leaders hoped, could perhaps steer the association away from deeper political turmoil.
A Florida law to expand student-athlete rights is scheduled to take effect this summer, and the California measure that in 2019 jump-started the N.C.A.A.’s debate is currently planned to come into force in 2023. (The author of the California measure has proposed having the state’s law take effect as early as Aug. 1 of this year, a month after the Florida statute.)
But in a four-page letter first reported by USA Today on Friday, Makan Delrahim, who oversees antitrust issues at the Justice Department, warned Emmert that the government wanted to ensure that any N.C.A.A. rules “will allow college athletes to benefit from robust competition for their talents.”
“College athletes, like any other American, deserve competition on and off the field,” said Delrahim, the assistant attorney general to whom Emmert wrote on Saturday.
In an interview on Saturday night, Emmert repeatedly expressed frustration and described the Justice Department’s move, which he said had stunned N.C.A.A. officials, as a “massive monkey wrench” that eviscerated months of careful planning.
“We were right on the cusp of making some really, really important changes to provide some much-needed flexibility and, all of a sudden, now we’ve got to pause,” said Emmert, who nevertheless vowed that the N.C.A.A. would ultimately change its rules.
“We just have to use whatever time it takes to sort this out” with the government, he said.
Even before the Justice Department aired its misgivings, some of the most influential figures in college sports, including Greg Sankey, the commissioner of the Southeastern Conference, had suggested that N.C.A.A. officials consider delaying votes on the subject. Recent and imminent machinations in Washington, they reasoned, could reshuffle the debate once more.
Perhaps most crucially, the United States Supreme Court recently agreed to hear the association’s appeal in an antitrust case related to benefits for student-athletes. The shifting balance of power in Washington is also certain to affect deliberations over a possible federal law governing college athletics.
Senator Cory Booker, Democrat of New Jersey, for instance, in December announced a proposal to give student-athletes a share of the profits in moneymaking sports like basketball and football. A Republican-led bill that surfaced in the Senate last year would have granted the N.C.A.A. an antitrust exemption.
But for all of the bubbling interest in Washington — and college sports issues have bubbled for years in the capital — it is not clear how urgently either the House or Senate will consider any of the measures, much less advance them.
Although name, image and likeness issues have drawn the most consistent attention from government officials, Emmert also recommended delaying consideration of a plan to drop a one-year wait time and allow athletes in five sports — baseball, basketball, football and men’s ice hockey — to play immediately after transferring between schools. The plan, supporters contend, would “create a uniform, equitable approach to transfer eligibility in all sports.”
Although Delrahim said the Justice Department supported the push to change the one-year rule, he voiced misgivings about other existing parts of the transfer policy and worried that they would “unreasonably deter students from entering the transfer process” if they remained in place.