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Here's another idea for how Congress could get involved in college sports

What if the government actually funded Olympic sports? Like everybody else does?

Good morning, and thanks for spending part of your day with Extra Points.

In case you've missed it, here's a quick recap of the legislative state of play for the NCAA and college sports as a whole.

The NCAA plans to ask Congress for three things in the near future: a federal college sports bill that would preempt state-level legislation, a limited antitrust exemption to allow the NCAA to regulate NIL and/or athlete compensation, and for the federal government to define college athletes as non-employees. These are big asks, and over the last 18 months, Congress has shown little interest in giving the NCAA all of those things. With Republicans now controlling the House, the pathway to any college sports legislation becomes more complicated.

Outside of what's happening with our federal lawmakers, there are two major challenges to the current 'amateurism' status quo, as the federal court system (in Johnson v NCAA) or the National Labor Relations Board, or both, could define college athletes as employees.

I've written this before, but I believe this tension is going to be one, if not the biggest college sports story in 2023. Absent any congressional action, there is a very good chance that some outside governing will blow up what's left of amateurism, mandating significant changes in how athletic departments allocate resources. That's something that could very well happen in the next two years.

A system where college football and basketball players (and potentially other athletes) formally become professional will bring about massive changes that will almost certainly bring unforeseen consequences for athletes, universities, broadcast partners, and other parties.

A friend of mine, historian Victoria Jackson of Arizona State University, recently suggested one way Congress could potentially address some of those unforeseen consequences, particularly for Olympic sports athletes.

What if Congress decides to ignore what the NCAA is asking for and instead do something completely different?

Many Olympic sports advocates are concerned about what happens in a post-amateurism world, since most P5 athletic departments can only afford to operate their programs with revenue generated from football and basketball. This system is very effective at preparing future Olympians, but not so effective for anything resembling economic justice.

Here's Dr. Jackson:

While fixing labor dynamics in football and basketball means more money will go to players, it also means less money will be transferred over to subsidize Olympic sports. So, what becomes of Olympic development when the transfer payments from football to the other college sports suddenly stop? Is anyone running economic models, or looking for new revenue streams? No one talking about economic justice for football and basketball athletes has a plan for Olympic sport development because most reformers and disruptors are not thinking about it at all.

With the future of American college sports, and, moreover, the business model of American college football—a main source of subsidization of Olympic sports in colleges—up in the air, it has become especially crucial—dire!—for U.S. sports institutions to get to work on alternative models of funding Olympic development through American colleges.

One potential solution, of course, would be for Congress to slap a band-aid on this system, prevent employer status, and help the NCAA continue the status quo, now held up with a fresh batch of duct tape. But Dr. Jackson has another idea.

Congress, NCAA, USOPC: Here is my moonshot. One new revenue stream to consider is a federal tax on sports betting to support Olympic development, with the federal funds running through universities to subsidize college sports teams.

For what it's worth, most other countries rely on their governments to help with Olympic sport development

The US model for elite athletic talent development, a hodgepodge of expensive K12 private camps bolted onto (mostly) public university athletic departments, is, as far as I am aware, one of a kind. Even the handful of countries that do have intercollegiate sporting activities, like Japan, Mexico, and Canada, do not rely on them to recruit and develop elite athletes as we do.

Most of our industrialized peers have some sort of government Ministry of Sport to help with talent development, encourage youth participation, etc. The role of our elite high school sports is replaced by youth academies from professional leagues, the national government, the armed forces or some other entity. The United States, either by historical accident, Cold War economic chauvinism, plain ol' inertia, and other reasons, has steadfastly worked to keep athletic policy 'private', even as government monies sometimes flow to college athletic departments.

I understand that there is broad discomfort with Congress getting much more involved in college athletics, a discomfort that comes from progressives and conservatives alike. It's also probably unrealistic to expect the US to simply ignore 150+ years of history and sports infrastructure to attempt to copy Germany or France at the drop of a hat.

But it is difficult to imagine many other possible solutions that would maintain elite athletic opportunities for Olympic athletes and end the wealth redistribution from football to swimming, without some sort of other government action.

Now, I don't automatically know if Dr. Jackson's idea would work either

Many states have tied gambling-related revenues to education-related projects, and as sports betting has become legalized throughout the country, other government bodies have added aggressive taxes. New York, for example, taxes gross gaming revenue for mobile sports betting at 51%

Could states that are unlikely to legalize sports betting, like Utah, still earn money to subsidize in-state Olympic sports programs via this kind of federal tax? Would a national gambling tax mean that states could no longer add their own taxes? Could such a gambling tax actually generate enough money? Would gaming-related interests be able to successfully squash a new tax effort in Congress? And if universities will remain the entities that run the Olympic development programs, will it be the NCAA that continues to run them? Sport-specific governing bodies? A US Olympic committee?

What interests me about this particular op-ed isn't so much the exact policy prescription, although I admit, I think I like this better than the last big moonshot idea I read about, letting the US armed forces pay for everything.

The interesting thing, to me, is that it tries to shift the Overton Window about what is possible in congressional involvement in college sports. If, as a country, we're going to entertain something so drastic as to dramatically increase government involvement in college athletics, why do we have to keep things the same? It's not like American voters love the NCAA and would be unwilling to accept major changes to it. Now is exactly the time for moonshot proposals and blue-sky thinking.

I don't believe that NIL poses a meaningful threat to the operation of Olympic sports programs. I do think there's a very good chance that an employee model for college athletics could pose a real threat...not just because more money will need to flow to football athletes, but because more money will also need to go to things like payroll taxes, HR departments, and lawyers. Without taking time to carefully consider the potential implications for Olympic sports, scholarship opportunities, enrollment management and more, I worry that a slapdash move into college sports 3.0 will lead to worse outcomes for a lot of people.

One of those outcomes could very well be an end to US Olympic dominance.

And even if you don't think NIL regulation should be part of the purview of Congress...isn't figuring out a way to continue to train elite swimmers for international competition?

I'll say this. I'm very much not an expert on elite athletic development in every other country, and I'm interested to hear other moonshot-type suggestions for Congress (or anybody else) as the industry struggles to find a stable, and fair, long-term solution. If you have thoughts, send 'em my way to [email protected].

Speaking of feedback, in case you missed this last week, but Bryan and I are sunsetting the current version of Going For Two, and will not record any new podcasts for at least the next several weeks. If you have thoughts about what future audio storytelling should look like on Extra Points, I'd love to hear them. Please share that feedback using this form.

This edition of Extra Points is brought to you in part by Baylor University Faith + Sport Institute

Here's another idea for how Congress could get involved in college sports

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Here's another idea for how Congress could get involved in college sports

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