College sports wants a new referee: Congress.
Some 30 states, from New York to Nebraska, are weighing competing proposals on student athlete compensation, with their legislative sessions in full swing. California already passed a law that says NCAA players can make endorsements or pitch merchandise without risking their scholarships or eligibility.
Powerful university leaders, student athlete advocates and the NCAA are intensifying pressure on lawmakers to quickly settle how college players should be paid.
All 50 states soon could have separate rules about college superstars signing sneaker contracts or monetizing Instagram followers like the pros. Players might lend their faces to car dealership promotions, earn cash coaching sports camps or hire agents and lawyers to negotiate on their behalf.
Those pushing Congress to move say such a mishmash of state laws would create an uneven landscape for recruiting athletes. A school in one state could offer a hot prospect better options than a cross-border rival. The result might be monumental opportunities for young athletes, or as some NCAA officials argue, an existential crisis for college sports.
“Even the NCAA acknowledges now that federal legislation is necessary,” said Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), a member of a recently formed bipartisan Senate working group studying compensation for student athletes. To set some kind of federal standard, lawmakers will have to navigate a thicket of complex implications for tax, antitrust and gender equity laws.