Wisconsin college athletes could be paid under bipartisan bill

By Kelly Meyerhofer, Wisconsin State Journal

Wisconsin lawmakers from both parties are drafting a bill that allows college athletes to hire outside agents and profit from their status starting in 2023, a change that could upend the state’s college sports landscape.

Similar to California’s “Fair Pay to Play” law passed last month, Wisconsin’s bill would make it illegal for state universities to revoke an athlete’s scholarship or eligibility for taking money, for example, through endorsements, autograph signings or social media advertising. It would also ban the NCAA from penalizing schools for allowing student athletes to be compensated for use of their name, image or likeness.

The Wisconsin bill, spearheaded by Rep. Dave Murphy, R-Greenville, chairman of the Assembly Colleges and Universities Committee, will likely be released next week, according to an aide from Murphy’s office. No senator has yet agreed to co-author the Senate version of the bill.

Rep. Katrina Shankland, D-Stevens Point, and Rep. Ron Tusler, R-Harrison, will likely sign on as co-authors, though some details in the bill are still being sorted out, aides from those offices said. An aide for Rep. David Crowley, D-Milwaukee, confirmed Crowley has been working with Murphy’s office on the bill, but was unable to say Wednesday whether he will support it.

“We cannot afford to sit this discussion out,” Murphy wrote in a Tuesday letter to UW Athletics Director Barry Alvarez, who has spoken out against changing student athlete compensation rules. “Wisconsin needs to stand up and be a leader on the right way to move forward on this issue.”

Lawmakers in at least a dozen other states have introduced legislation similar to California’s or pre-filed versions for the 2020 legislative session, putting pressure on the NCAA to reconsider its longstanding philosophy that student athletes should not be paid beyond the costs of attending a university.

The NCAA’s governing board unanimously voted Tuesday to direct its three divisions — Division I, II and III — to update its policies by January 2021 allowing athletes to profit while staying within a framework of what it called a “collegiate model” — a model that doesn’t currently allow for athletes to be compensated for their name, image or likeness.

“Wisconsin’s motto is ‘Forward,’ not ‘Wait and See,’” Shankland said in an interview Wednesday. “We don’t want to wait and see what the NCAA says. We want students to understand we support them and have a conversation about what fairness, equity and opportunity looks like not only in Wisconsin, but across the country.”

The latest version of the Wisconsin bill differs from California’s in a few key ways.

First-year and transfer students are exempt under the Wisconsin bill, opening the door for the NCAA or a university to ban new students from profiting off of their status. The intent behind this provision is to limit the influence of money on college athletic recruitment.

The bill also bans the NCAA or institutions from facilitating agreements or contracts between student athletes and third parties. The measure is aimed at colleges that may circumvent the rules prohibiting them from compensating athletes by explicitly banning them from coordinating with a third party to do so on their behalf.

Another provision requires student athletes to notify colleges and athletic associations before entering into a contract and prevents them from entering into the agreement if it would harm the college’s reputation or conflicts with an already existing deal the college has with a third party. For example, if the college has a contract with Adidas, the athlete may not be able to broker an agreement with Under Armour.

The last provision concerns Shankland because she said it provides institutions with too much power to issue arbitrary decisions. She said she is working with lawmakers on further defining that and adding an appeals process for student athletes.

The bill is on its third revision after Murphy and others received feedback from UW Athletics and Marquette University representatives in recent weeks.

If Wisconsin’s bill becomes law, it would take effect six months after California’s law kicks in Jan. 1, 2023.

Becoming law requires passage from the Republican-controlled Assembly and Senate, as well as approval from Democratic Gov. Tony Evers.

Spokespeople for Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, and Evers did not respond to requests for comment Wednesday.

Shortly after California’s governor signed the bill on college athlete compensation into law, Alvarez said he was “very concerned” about its impact on college sports. UW Athletics has an estimated $610 million economic impact on the state, according to a 2019 analysis by Philadelphia consulting firm Econsult Solutions.

UW-Madison officials declined Wednesday to comment on the proposed bill because it has not been introduced.

They referred to a UW Athletics statement issued Tuesday in response to the NCAA’s latest action, which said: “Wisconsin supports the efforts of the NCAA and the Big Ten Conference to enhance support of student-athletes that is tethered to education. We look forward to working with the Conference and the NCAA as appropriate rules for the use of name, image and likeness are developed.”

Bill Scholl, athletic director for Marquette University, which houses another well-known Division I program, said in a Wednesday statement issued through a university spokeswoman that the proposed Wisconsin legislation has several positive aspects, citing one of the most important as the delayed implementation until 2023 that will allow the NCAA time to define its own rules.

“A universal national solution is the best option, so our student-athletes can be supported, while at the same time maintaining the collegiate model and a level playing field,” Scholl said.