NCAA Seeks Congressional Liability Shield: Baker Calls for Limited Protection

Charlie Baker, the former Republican governor of Massachusetts, stepped into his role as the NCAA president earlier this year, with the aim of leveraging his bipartisan skills to unite a historically divided Congress in the interest of preserving college sports’ endangered model of amateurism.

During a recent hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Baker emphasized the NCAA’s recent proposed changes to address athlete welfare while issuing a dire warning to Congress.

He stressed that without granting the NCAA some form of protection, referred to as “limited liability protection” or an antitrust exemption, the mounting legal challenges faced by college sports governance could push the enterprise to the edge of relevance.

Baker acknowledged the immense power of the legislative branch, emphasizing the urgency of this matter and presenting a novel perspective. He advocated for a unique status for college athletes that would affirm they are not employees, employing a new rhetorical strategy to garner support.

Contrary to recent efforts advocating for college athletes to be recognized as employees, Baker claimed that the majority of college athletes oppose this move. He cited personal interactions with over a thousand college athletes during his tenure, where not a single athlete expressed support for the employee status.

This stance, however, seems to contradict broader public sentiment. A Sportico/Harris Poll survey conducted in August found that 64% of U.S. adults support worker protections for college athletes.

The NCAA faced mounting pressure to adapt its policies regarding college athletes’ rights and benefits, especially since July 2021 when provisional rules were implemented to allow college athletes to profit from their rights of publicity.

The ensuing months saw numerous Congressional hearings, yet no bill addressing the issues has progressed beyond the committee stage.

During the hearing, Baker was accompanied by various stakeholders, including Tony Petitti (Big Ten commissioner), Jack Swarbrick (Notre Dame athletic director), Ramogi Huma (college athlete advocate), and others.

Huma, representing the National College Players Association, argued for athletes’ employee status and emphasized the NCAA’s track record as a chronic antitrust violator.

On the other hand, some witnesses, like Jill Bodensteiner, argued that requiring athletic departments to treat athletes as employees would significantly impact the educational aspect of college sports. They contended that many athletes prioritize education and view it as a primary goal.

While some members of the committee expressed a desire to preserve the traditional college sports system, others, notably Senators Josh Hawley and John Kennedy, were more aggressive in challenging the NCAA’s stance on amateurism. They questioned whether the resistance to change stemmed from concerns over revenue redistribution.

Kennedy emphasized the importance of prioritizing the well-being and financial interests of student-athletes. He cautioned the NCAA that Congress might take action if the NCAA does not proactively reform the system.

Looking forward, the fate of college athletics remains uncertain. Baker and other stakeholders urged Congress to act swiftly, warning that without intervention, college athletics could face a bleak future, potentially altering the landscape of college sports as we know it.

In conclusion, the NCAA’s plea for ‘limited liability protection’ from Congress highlights the complex and evolving dynamics surrounding college sports and the urgent need for a resolution that balances the interests of student-athletes and the institutions they represent.

The path forward will necessitate careful deliberation and collaboration to address the challenges while safeguarding the integrity of college sports.


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