AJC: David Perdue jumps into the debate over pay for college athletes


Analysis: David Perdue jumps into the debate over pay for college athletes
December 13, 2019
By: Jim Galloway

On the cusp of a re-election year, U.S. Sen. David Perdue has thrust himself into an explosive Washington debate that could – should things get out of hand – threaten this nation’s most sacred institutions.

And there’s Donald Trump’s impeachment trial to worry about, too.

But more important than the man in the White House, at least on 13 Saturdays each fall, is the religion of college football. (And for those heathens in North Carolina and elsewhere, college basketball.)

Georgia’s soon-to-be senior senator has joined a bipartisan working group attempting to deal with the implications of a suddenly viral concept that burst from the West Coast only three months ago: That athletes should get a piece of the $14 billion in annual revenue that colleges and universities collect courtesy of their sweat and pain.

It is California’s fault. In September, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed into law a measure to permit his state’s college athletes to be paid for endorsement deals, sponsorships, autograph signings and other ventures.

The California law won’t go into effect until 2023, but already similar efforts in 20 or more states have jumped up, blurring the political line that separates red and blue. In Georgia, state Rep. Billy Mitchell, D-Stone Mountain, says that by the time the Legislature convenes in January, his measure, House Bill 743, will have more Republican signatures than Democratic ones.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, has endorsed like-minded legislation.

“So here we go,” Perdue said in a phone interview. “We’re going to have an arms race between states about recruiting high school kids for college sports. That’s a problem. All of a sudden now, we need a level playing field.

“There are already high school kids that are being talked to around the country, about the California law,” Perdue said. “They’ll be recruited in a year or so, but they’re being told now, ‘Hey, come to California and make some money.’”

The Senate effort is being led by Mitt Romney, R-Utah, and Chris Murphy, D-Conn.

Romney is credited with salvaging the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics — an organization that has also had to come to grips with a shifting line between pure amateurism and the financial status of athletes. In October, Romney issued a warning to the NCAA, which has long balked at loosening rules on athlete compensation.

“We’re coming for you,” Romney said. “We’re coming to help these young athletes in the future, and the athletes of today, make sure that they don’t have to sacrifice their time and sacrifice, in many cases, their bodies without being fairly compensated.”

Murphy has published two treatises on the college sports machine under the title of “Madness Inc.”

“The current system does more to advance the financial interests of broadcasters, apparel companies, and athletic departments than it does for the student-athletes who provide the product from which everyone else profits,” the Connecticut senator wrote.

Two other Senate members are former college scholarship athletes – Marco Rubio of Florida and Cory Booker of New Jersey. The latter is also a Democratic candidate for president.

Perdue comes at the issue from the financial side. His first corporate turnaround of note was Reebok International Ltd. In 2001. Exclusive and unprecedented licensing agreements with the National Football League, the National Basketball Association and the National Hockey League were crucial to the company’s revival.

In college sports, the money contest has long been underway, Perdue said. It’s just a matter of where that cash goes.

“Look at the arms race among the top 50 college football programs,” the senator said. “Go to the University of Georgia and look at their infrastructure. Look at Clemson. Look at Alabama. There’s so much money around these top teams because of the TV revenue, because of ticket revenue, and the alumni support of those programs.”

Coaching pay, according to Murphy’s Madness Inc., has skyrocketed. Approximately 4,400 head and assistant coaches collectively receive more of the generated revenue than the nearly 45,000 student-athletes on scholarships.

Adjusted for inflation, Alabama coach Bear Bryant earned $1.1 million at the height of his fame. Nick Saban receives 10 times that.

As a political topic, compensation of college athletes is an issue fraught with racial divides. A 2017 poll by the Washington Post found that 54% of African-Americans support paying college athletes, but only 31% of whites felt the same. There was broader consensus – 89% among blacks, 60% among whites — on permitting players to earn money if their name or image is used on merchandise.

This is where most legislation, state and federal, appears to be headed.

“That’s the easiest to get at first. It’s not the only issue,” Perdue said.

But even that has complications. Consider the fleet-footed star running back and the anonymous lineman who plows the field ahead of him. “How do you allow a kid to get paid signing jerseys with his name on the back? And then, how do you split that with the other players on the team, and the university?” Perdue asked. Or should you?

There is a labor-versus-management aspect to the issue of athletic pay. Booker and most other Democratic presidential candidates have endorsed allowing athletes to earn money from their names and images. Sens. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts support allowing players to unionize as well.

Others, and Perdue is among them, emphasize the preservation of college sports as an institution in a shifting landscape.

“My concern is that we don’t have agents sitting in kitchens signing contracts with high school kids and negotiating contracts – instead of being recruited by colleges, destroying the student athlete,” he said.

Five years ago, the NCAA benched star UGA tailback Todd Gurley for four games — for accepting money from autograph dealers. The Legislature quickly passed, and the governor signed into law, a measure aimed at those who tempt college athletes into risking their amateur status. The penalty: Jail time and a fine of up to $25,000.Those days appear to be on the edge of extinction.

In late October, meeting on the campus of Emory University, the NCAA’s top governing body voted unanimously to allow athletes to be paid for use of their name, image and likeness “in a manner consistent with the collegiate model.”

What that collegiate model is has yet to be defined. Perdue said the NCAA is expected to come up with preliminary rules in January, with a final decision coming in April. The Power Five conferences, the SEC among them, are working on the issue as well.

The senator hopes the two groups can come up with a solution that will pass muster with Congress. Lord knows, every sports bar in Georgia will be watching.