Will the annual Congress vs. Lobbyists Game replace March Madness?

NCAA Suits Up a Team of Lobbyists

Kavitha A. Davidson is a former Bloomberg View columnist.
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If you follow the money, it appears that the NCAA might be running scared.

According to a new report by Open Secrets, the National Collegiate Athletic Assocation had spent $240,000 on lobbying as of June 30, far exceeding the $160,000 it spent in all of 2013. In addition, it hired outside lobbyists for the first time in more than 15 years. Federal lobbying disclosures reveal that the NCAA spent $90,000 on lobbyists from Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck to tackle the "welfare of student-athletes."

Much like the Washington Redskins, who have increased their K Street push this year in an effort to keep their name, the lobbying effort comes as no surprise: The NCAA is currently facing its most significant legal and political threat in decades. Disputes over athlete pay strike at the heart of the false notion of amateurism on which the NCAA and its arcane rules are built. Last week, the association was forced to confront the increasing irrelevance of the myth of the student-athlete -- as well as, perhaps, its own mortality in itself.

On Thursday, the NCAA board voted to give autonomy to the wealthiest Division I conferences, the so-called Power Five. Faced with possible secession, the association granted the ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and SEC the power to govern themselves under their own rules, opening the door to increased scholarships and stipends for athletes, greater health care coverage and loosened restrictions on recruiters and agents.

The next day, a federal judge ruled in the highly publicized O'Bannon case that the NCAA's restrictions on athlete compensation for use of their names, images and likenesses violate antitrust laws. Starting with the recruiting class of 2016, schools can put aside an amount of money, with a floor at $5,000 a year, in a trust that the athlete will receive on graduation.

NCAA President Mark Emmert confirmed that the association would appeal the ruling, a battle it has repeatedly said it was prepared to take all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. It's not hard to see why: In characterizing the NCAA's compensation system as collusion, Judge Claudia Wilken essentially ruled that the association's implementation of amateurism causes "anticompetitive harm," directly rejecting the usual defenses spouted by Emmert & Co.

It should be noted, however, that while the wording in Wilken's 99-page ruling sweepingly denounced many of the NCAA's arguments, the ruling itself didn't contain the prescription for resounding change as some others have said. The $5,000 minimum cap means that the NCAA is still price-fixing, just at a limit set by Wilken herself, falling far short of the market value O'Bannon and the other plaintiffs had hoped to gain. Furthermore, Wilken ruled that players may not sign endorsement deals, so as to "protect against the 'commercial exploitation' of student-athletes."

Still, as the Cauldron's Jack Moore writes, the challenge to the principle of amateurism hits at the "fundamental" reason the NCAA exists, to borrow one of Emmert's most overused words. The group is therefore prepared to challenge the O'Bannon ruling all the way to the highest court in the land. But Sports Illustrated's Michael McCann questions the capacity for broader change to college sports, at least as facilitated by law. He points to a passage in Wilken's ruling:

It is likely that the challenged restraints, as well as other perceived inequities in college athletics and higher education generally, could be better addressed as a policy matter by reforms other than those available as a remedy for the antitrust violation found here. Such reforms and remedies could be undertaken by the NCAA, its member schools and conferences, or Congress.

Recognizing the limitations to overhaul a clearly broken system through litigation alone, Wilken recommends dialogue, internal cooperation and political negotiation. If the NCAA is taking to K Street in anticipation of this shift from the courtroom to Congress, its timing couldn't be better: One of its outside lobbyists has interned on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, and the White House announced Tuesday its plans to ease its ban on lobbyists serving on federal advisory panels. The NCAA could thus find its $240,000 (and counting) to be money well spent.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Kavitha A Davidson at kdavidson19@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Toby Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net