January 10, 2020
Megan Hunt is a first in several ways. She is not only the first woman to represent her district in Nebraska’s unicameral legislature but the first member of the Nebraska Senate from any district who is also openly bisexual. The 33-year-old Democrat is also about to become the first Nebraska Senator to propose a bill that would allow college athletes in the state to profit off their names, images and likenesses without it affecting their eligibility to participate in NCAA athletics.
Hunt isn’t the first to make the question of economic justice for college athletes in Nebraska a legislative issue, however. Hunt credits Nebraska Senator Ernie Chambers with starting the discussion on compensation for athletes in the state decades ago. Hunt draws from more than just Chambers’ trailblazing in her latest legislative proposal. Like many of the athletes who will take advantage of their publicity rights if unencumbered by concerns of jeopardizing their educations in doing so, Hunt’s background before becoming a state Senator is creating her own brand. She owned her own business, for over a decade, until recently when she closed it to focus full-time on her duties in the Nebraska Senate. Hunt says her experiences help her identify with the daily life of college athletes in her state.
“I have been an entrepreneur in my district for the past 15 years and that’s been a very heavy part of my identity for my whole adult life,” Hunt explained. “So the transition is not negative. It’s not bad but it’s a big change for me for sure, I have had some challenges about if I’m not a business owner, who even am I? Those kinds of existential questions that you have when you face a huge life upheaval but I think that being entrepreneurial, for better or for worse, is a very common and necessary trait in millennial and young people today because we have more student debt than any other generation. We make lower wages than any other generation did before us. We have lower rates of homeownership. We get married later. Everything that our parents and grandparents built up for us in terms of opportunity has increased for younger generations today. So while we might hail the spirit of entrepreneurship as a really good thing and I think that’s a great thing, for so many people it’s out of necessity. It’s a hustle. It’s just survival. This is a survival economy for a lot of people and there are going to be athletes who understand that spirit of the hustle of course.”
Yet under the status quo, the athletes Hunt referred to have to choose between maintaining their eligibility to play their sport and taking part in that hustle. Hunt is bringing forward a bill in the Nebraska Legislature to address that problem. Hunt says her bill will protect athletes’ NIL rights and give them the same freedom to utilize them, even for cash, like every other student at Nebraska’s colleges and universities. Hunt says the bill is in the final stages of drafting and she wants to file it in the next couple of days. She also stresses that if the bill makes it out of committee and to the full Nebraska Senate floor, she may use her “priority bill” designation to expedite its debate there.
In drafting the bill, as many other state legislators around the country have, Hunt gleaned concepts she liked from the first of its kind to become law, California’s version of a college athletes’ NIL rights law. Hunt likes two tenets of that law the most.
“One is that California’s version of this bill passed with unanimous support and that showed us that this is and should be a nonpartisan issue,” Hunt elaborated. “It’s not partisan because it’s about fairness and civil rights. Big-time coaches and athletic directors and corporations, you know, the NCAA has all these corporations that are advertisers and agencies that represent the schools and produce merchandise. They aren’t just taking most of the money. They are taking all of the money. Bills that are being introduced like this by both Republicans and Democrats demonstrate that this is something that we can all agree on.”
“The second reason that I really liked this avenue, this channel for change in legislation is that the bill doesn’t try to do too much. This bill focuses on the student-athlete’s right to freedom of contract which allows them to make money off of their name, image and likeness. Really simply, this law treats student-athletes exactly like every other college student walking around campus. We don’t give them any special rights. We don’t downplay their rights. We just treat them equally and we really want to give them the same opportunity as the rest of their classmates to participate in the market, earn money from their skills and talents and be able to support themselves.”
Hunt also adds that she included many of the organizations and people that will be affected by the bill should it become law in the drafting process. That includes current and former athletes, her state’s university system, the NCPA and the NCAA. Despite the fact that the NCAA has been staunchly opposed to athletes defying a traditional interpretation of amateurism and found in violation of Article 1 of the Sherman Act on two separate occasions, Hunt felt it was important to listen to the NCAA’s concerns on her bill.
“I always give everybody, every stakeholder who is going to be affected by legislation the chance to have input on that legislation,” Hunt said. “That doesn’t mean I’m going to change my mind. That doesn’t mean I’m going to do what they want me to do but I’m always going to listen to them. I’m going to be transparent about my goals with legislation. If you hurt the trust that you have with the people who you’re making laws that affect them, that’s a really bad way to run a government whether you’re running a state or a country.”
Because of her allowing stakeholders on all sides to put their two cents in on the language of the bill, Hunt expects a clear path forward for not only passage but the implementation of her bill into law.
“I want to be clear, my bill does not attempt to require out-of-state colleges to allow compensation and it doesn’t bar other states’ colleges from choosing to allow compensation,” Hunt detailed. “It doesn’t prevent Nebraska colleges from competing against out-of-state colleges. This bill only applies to Nebraska institutions. There’s nothing unconstitutional about it in Nebraska or at the federal level. Whatever other states are doing that’s for the NCAA to litigate about but from my conversations with representatives from the NCAA, with representatives from the university, I think that we are going to be able to come to a compromise and litigation isn’t something that I see as being necessary.”
Part of the compromise that Hunt spoke to is identical to the California law in that her bill wouldn’t take effect until January 1, 2023. Hunt stated she wants to give the NCAA and Nebraska’s colleges time to “catch up” and implement the changes that the new law would require so that when the law takes effect, they are already in compliance. Whether the bill will pass through the Nebraska Senate as smoothly as California’s law did is yet to be determined. Even if ultimately successful, however, Hunt sees it as just an incremental measure, not a wholesale solution to problems that college athletes in Nebraska face.
“I think that the Nebraska Fair Pay to Play Act is just going to be the first step in the larger fight for fair compensation for athletes,” Hunt added. “This spills over into a broader conversation about higher education as a whole. The ever-rising costs of tuition and books and living. All of these things are barriers for all students and I am proud to introduce a bill to start a conversation about this whole topic in Nebraska.”
Hunt knows that giving the athletes their full economic rights is much bigger than just preventing the NCAA and its member institutions from forcing athletes to choose between their educations and their publicity rights. She is committed to playing the long game for those rights.
“I think that NCAA programs generate a lot of revenue but players can only be compensated with small stipends and an education that they don’t even get time to take advantage of,” Hunt explained. “I think that the players should be treated as employees, that they should be compensated for the value that they bring to the institutions and to the NCAA but I also have to legislate in the realm of the possible. The ideas come from a lot of brainstorming, a lot of ethical, moral and ideological searching. Just because I think something doesn’t mean that it’s practical to legislate so I think it’s a better service to these players for me to pass what I can and do something incremental for them instead of doing nothing. While we have to keep fighting for the rights of players and for all workers in fairness in compensation we also have to take wins when we can get them. I think this can be a win in Nebraska.”
Despite her spinning NIL rights as an incremental step, Hunt’s vision for the effects of her bill is broad. It includes more than just the athletes, the University of Nebraska and the NCAA. Hunt sees her bill as one of those incremental wins for everyone in the state.
“My hope is that we’re going to see volleyball players be able to give lessons,” Hunt elaborated. “We’re going to see swimmers host camps and teach kids how to do the same stuff that they do and that will continue to inspire young people to get involved in athletics. It will incentivize them to stay physically active through college so to me this bill isn’t just about endorsement deals with Nike or Adidas for the star football player. It’s about the freedom of all student-athletes to use their own name image and likeness. …It will also be a great recruiting tool for Nebraska. In Nebraska, we have a steadily decreasing population of 18-to-40-year-olds. We have a workforce shortage of about 30,000 jobs that we can’t get filled because we don’t have the population. We also have a really enthusiastic fan base for our Nebraska Cornhusker football team so anything we can do to strengthen our state, strengthen our athletics, this bill does all of that.”
The first time a Cornhusker athlete receives payment for putting on one of those volleyball clinics and goes back to play in Nebraska’s next match without having to conceal her activity, she will have Hunt to thank for it. This is Hunt’s first act working toward justice for college athletes in her state’s Senate. If her success as a businesswoman is an accurate predictor of similar returns in her Senatorial career, it won’t be her last such act.
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Derek Helling is a journalist out of Chicago. Illinois, who covers the intersections of entertainment and sports with business, law, media and technology. He publishes a newsletter, "The Ninth Circle of Helling," that focuses on labor issues in North American sport.