NCAA president visits Sioux Falls to hear from regional college sports leaders

Aug. 22—SIOUX FALLS — With name, image and likeness and transfer rules getting the most attention, student and administrative leaders in college sports in the region had the ear of NCAA President Charlie Baker and U.S. Sen. John Thune, R-S.D. on Tuesday in a congressional engagement listening session in Sioux Falls.

The event, hosted by the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference and Augustana University, was held at the Elmen Center on Tuesday, Aug. 22, with hundreds of student-athletes from Augustana and the University of Sioux Falls in attendance.

Both Baker and Thune reiterated that they believe in the concept of NIL, with Baker saying simply it's the right thing to do. But they both spoke to the goal of passing federal legislation that would protect student-athletes and their families from getting taken advantage of in trying to monetize their skills while playing college sports.

"There's a lot of temptations right now in the way things are happening," Thune said. "We are seeing a lot of athletes being rewarded for the value they bring and that's a great thing, but I think we need some general guardrails around that to make sure that this process works in a way that's transparent and that honors students and their parents and their schools."

Baker, the former governor of Massachusetts who has been the NCAA president since March, said he scoffed at the idea of taking the NCAA job at first but believed in the mission at hand because of the lessons he learned in college sports at Harvard. He called college sports the "world's most powerful human development machine."

"There's 19,000 teams in NCAA sports, and only 5% to 8% will ever be on TV," Baker said. "Most of college sports are the programs that are here today, and that's part of why I'm here today. I want to make sure that whatever we do works for the whole shooting match, not just the top programs that people see on New Year's Day, because so many of our student-athletes are here for an educational experience and the chance to play the sport that they love."

Thune, who serves on the Senate Commerce committee that oversees college sports issues, said there are four core principles he wants to see in federal legislation: avoiding pay for play with a universal standard contract; avoid athletes becoming employees of the university; preempt state laws; and create a NIL registry. He called the intersection of NIL and transfer portal issues as a "perfect storm."

Baker said there were thousands of college athletes who were in the transfer portal earlier this year that didn't land at another school, mainly because they were chasing NIL deals that didn't come together.

"We need to address these issues, and we need to be proactive so that we're not constantly reacting and trying to catch up. ... There are things that I think we should do, and we will at the NCAA level, around accountability and transparency. But it's very hard for us to solve (issues) that we have 35 states that have different rules around how NIL works. ... That's where the federal government comes in."

Thune spoke about the need for federal legislation in light of laws that some states have passed in order to give their state a competitive advantage. In Missouri, for example, state law will allow athletes to begin profiting from endorsement deals while still in high school as long as they sign a letter of intent to attend a public university in Missouri.

"We want to make sure we get this right," Thune said. "Because there's a lot riding on this for student-athletes and their families."

Through athletes and administrators, all three divisions of NCAA schools were represented, with Summit League Commissioner Josh Fenton representing the Division I interests.

Fenton said that while the federal government passing laws is necessary from a consumer protection standpoint for student-athletes, he said the industry — the NCAA and its universities — will need to police "pay for play" policies and recruiting inducements.

While Division II schools have been less involved in NIL agreements with their athletes, it has started to trickle down. Jennifer Flowers, the athletic director at Southwest Minnesota State University, said Division II universities have issues with retention when a freshman athlete has a good season because Division I schools come calling with deals to offer for athletes.

Davaris Cheeks, a football player at Concordia University-St. Paul who was on a student panel of D-II and D-III athletes, said the benefits of NIL at the Division II level haven't really been fully realized because it's so new and athletes and universities are still realizing what markets are available.

"I would hate to see those opportunities be taken away before we really even have the chance to take advantage of those," Cheeks said.

Erika Bute, a volleyball player at Augustana, said there is much more to her collegiate sports experience than NIL.

"My sport is so much more than just about making money; it's about other opportunities, too," she said. "As a female athlete, Title IX has given us so many incredible opportunities, and it could be frustrating if we implement something that disrupts that progress."

A key topic on Tuesday was athletes being classified as employees. Recent court cases and National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) actions have shown some momentum toward classifying student-athletes as employees, something the panel participants warned against.

If that were the case, could coaches fire athletes for poor performance, asked Cheeks.

"If I make minimum wage as an athlete, would I choose a different school based on what I'm going to get paid because it changes from state to state?" Cheeks continued.

Muthu Meenakshisundaram, a soccer player at Division III Minnesota Morris, said it's important that the relationship between coaches and athletes stays as a mentor-mentee relationship.

Flowers was the most blunt about the idea of universities making athletes their employees. She said her university can't afford that, and would have to eliminate sports and would eliminate 50 years of progress under Title IX.

When Baker discusses transparency and accountability for institutions related to NIL, he said that will apply to all NCAA member schools, including private institutions like Augustana and Sioux Falls. He said he's hopeful that rules are passed on the NCAA and in Washington by the end of the year but realizes that might be too ambitious.

"I think the most important thing that everyone needs to remember is that there are three divisions and they are very different. In Division III, scholarships are based on academic need; they don't do athletic scholarships. D-II is the only place that you can combine athletic and academic scholarships. ... We're going to end up with something that looks a little more like a federation and less like everyone playing under the same rules for everyone," Baker said.

Baker touted two new programs the NCAA will be implementing in coming months. One, the NCAA will offer member schools post-eligibility injury insurance coverage for student-athletes beginning in August 2024. The coverage will be for two years after student-athletes complete their college athletics experience and will cover injuries that occur while playing for their school and will be available to all athletes at all member schools in Divisions I, II and III.

At the Division I level, NCAA schools will be required to provide degree completion funds for student-athletes for up to 10 years after a college athlete's eligibility concludes if that college athlete was previously on a full scholarship or received financial aid.