President Biden, ex-CFB players discuss college athletes’ rights: Will it lead to change?

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Andrew Luck, Desmond Howard and a delegation of former college football players went to the White House on Wednesday hoping to just share thoughts with a few Biden administration officials on the rights of college athletes.

They ended up getting much more than that: President Biden not only stopped by the meeting, but he spent an hour with the players, giving them a tour of the Oval Office and cabinet room and listening to their thoughts on players’ rights.

“It was really cool. He was really interested in giving us an in-depth explanation of his journey, why he was passionate about what we were talking about,” former Georgia running back Keith Marshall said. “It was much more than I was anticipating.”

It was also an important moment in the debate over NIL, revenue sharing and other issues in college sports. The NCAA and member conferences have been lobbying Congress for legislation to regulate NIL and these issues. Biden’s involvement is a clear sign that this will not be a one-sided debate, with the White House saying it wants the players to have a voice. While current players weren’t part of it, the former players — eight in all, along with ESPN anchor Kevin Negandhi — were invited to represent those views.

“Just to think they see this issue as important enough that they would carve out time of the President’s schedule to meet with us, means everything,” Howard said. “You know as analysts, and people who do color and call games, we all talk about these issues, but we think it’s just us and people don’t really care. But for it to reach this height, we’re at the White House brother, it’s truly special. And it gives us hope for change.”

What was discussed?

The dominant topics were revenue sharing with athletes, health and safety standards and generally giving players a voice in the NCAA and college athletics. There was only brief mention, participants said, about making athletes employees of schools, which would likely lead to unionizing.

“We didn’t talk about the policies in particular,” said Ryan Clark, a former LSU and NFL safety who is an analyst for ESPN. “I think this conversation was to see what policies can be enacted. It was to see how to have the conversation with the NCAA. It was how to have the conversation with those who want to represent the student-athletes and what policies could be enforced. And to be honest it wasn’t about a policy that could only help student-athletes. We want it to be beneficial to the NCAA. Want it to be fair. We want it to be equitable in a way that it can be equitable.”

Rod Gilmore, the former Stanford player and current ESPN analyst, emphasized health and safety standards, which ended up being a big part of the discussion: “There should be best practices or oversight, that each football team isn’t left to the whim of whatever strength coach out there wants to do.”

Howard, the Heisman Trophy winner at Michigan in 1991 and also now an ESPN analyst, talked about sharing more revenue with players.

“I’ve seen it go from the BCS to a four-team Playoff model, to now a 12-team Playoff model. And we all know that just generates more revenue,” Howard said. “And so of course players can get NIL nowadays, but that’s not even cutting into the pie that they helped create.”

Biden was receptive to all these concerns, according to the former players.

“In order to take your time to do this, you have to at least care a little bit,” Clark said. “It has to be important enough. When you do have people from the NCAA trekking up to be here, you want to have information from the other side as well. The college student-athlete doesn’t have the other side. They don’t have the voice to voice what they’re facing, and I think that was the main point of bringing in people who have advocated for people who are student-athletes.”

Why Biden is weighing in

White House officials had been working to arrange the meeting for months, tying it in with the administration’s overall interest in workers’ rights. And college football offers a high-profile spotlight for it.

“College athletes are a central part of American culture,” Marshall said. “There’s a lot of conversation about it. And making sure that college athletes are protected and put in an environment where they’re getting what they deserve and are taken care of long-term, I think it fits in line with some of the larger labor considerations he had. He seemed genuinely interested.”

The meeting began in the Roosevelt Room, where a picture of Teddy Roosevelt on a horse overlooks the table. As it began, two White House officials sat at the center of the table to lead the meeting: Lael Brainard, the head of the National Economic Council, and Stephen Benjamin, director of the Office of Public Engagement and the former mayor of Columbia, S.C. — a double graduate of South Carolina who knows the SEC well.

Benjamin began by telling the group: “As the landscape of college football changes and revenue grows exponentially, we just want to make sure we have the conversation, and that you all have been leading on, thankfully, and make sure players are protected, not just in the short term, but in the long term. And try to make sure as money grows there’s not a significant power imbalance that also occurs. And make sure the voice that’s needed for players in issues of safety, potential compensation, protections as well, that you have the ability to do that.”

Benjamin added that while this meeting centered on football, the concerns and reforms would include other sports as well.

Biden joined the meeting after a few minutes, then ended up taking it from there. The former players described it as a good exchange and came away gushing not only about getting to spend so much time with the president, but being able to speak about their concerns.

Will it lead to anything?

“I think this was the kickoff, if you will,” Gilmore said. “Because keep in mind for the longest time the narrative out there has been the NCAA narrative that we need help, we need protection, if Congress can help us. But there hasn’t been on a national level an institution thinking about the players, and what the players need, and what the players’ voice is, and that’s what today was about. …

“We had a frank discussion about the fact that the players don’t have a voice. This is a $20 billion a year industry, and they don’t have a voice, they don’t have a seat at the table, and decisions are made that affect them financially and health wise. And there is nobody sitting there operating in their interest.”

(Photo: Andrew Caballero-Reynolds / AFP via Getty Images)

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