As he watches the change rapidly reshaping American college sports, Chris Murphy can't help but wish progress always came so quickly.
In the two and a half years since the Connecticut senator became Washington's most outspoken advocate for college athletes' economic rights, a decades-old movement has broken through in major ways. Coaches, athletic directors, state legislators and even - reluctantly - the NCAA have embraced letting players sign endorsement deals. The U.S. Supreme Court has proclaimed that the NCAA has been unconstitutionally restricting players' earning potential. And members of both major American political parties have publicly clamored for wholesale change.
"There have been plenty of other issues that I work on that have seen a lot less progress than this one has," Murphy said in a recent interview. "I think this was one of those rare issues where the injustice was so big, it’s just that nobody had seen it. Once people got exposed to the injustice and were able to think about it for more than a few seconds, their minds were made up."
So while Murphy might prefer all this progress come on, say, gun control legislation, he says he’ll take the wins where he can get them.
"To me, it’s one of the remaining great civil rights fights," he said of college sports reform. "The deeper I get into this, the more I realize how unjustifiable it is, that these kids, largely kids of color, who are playing the moneymaking sports are deliberately kept in poverty so that rich, white men can make money."
Murphy was far from the first to notice that the massive revenue generated from college sports don’t meaningfully trickle down to the players - athletes and activists have been saying so for years. But he was among the first national lawmakers to take action, beginning with a series of reports, which then turned into two pieces of proposed legislation.
The college sports world has noticed.
"He and his staff have demonstrated that they are very serious about understanding the issues, understanding what is at stake, understanding the need for intervention given the power dynamics that put athletes at such a disadvantage," said Ellen Staurowsky, an Ithaca College professor and longtime advocate for college athletes’ rights who has advised Murphy’s office on the subject. "Their efforts are really quite different from other efforts at the federal level."
'Rattling some cages’
Murphy grew up in Wethersfield as a UConn men’s basketball fan, cheering on players like Tate George, Chris Smith and Donyell Marshall. Later he met his future wife at a bar where they were both watching the Huskies win the 1999 men’s NCAA Tournament.
But as he tells it, his view that the college sports system needed an overhaul didn’t crystallize until February 2019, when he watched Duke basketball star Zion Williamson injure himself during a game against North Carolina.
Williamson had made millions for his school, for his coach, for national TV networks and for various advertisers. In return, he had received only a scholarship and the promise of NBA riches in the near future. His injury introduced a disturbing possibility: that he would never be able to cash in on his college stardom.
"This idea that this kid was potentially going to make no money off his immense talent while all of these adults surrounding the NCAA, the college basketball industry and Duke were going to make millions just seemed to be the worst of college athletics," Murphy said. "It just felt like it was an issue that needed somebody to start rattling some cages."
Williamson’s injury turned out to be minor, and he proceeded to the NBA without issue, but the incident stuck with Murphy. His office began reaching out to academics and advocates pushing college sports reform and, in March 2019, released the first of three reports outlining what the senator saw as injustice in college sports.
The reports were released publicly and earned national media coverage, but Murphy was most interested in how they were received among his colleagues in the Senate. He recalls Mitt Romney (R-UT) reaching out after reading one of the reports and suggesting the two work together on some sort of legislation. They soon recruited Sens. Cory Booker (D-NJ), Marco Rubio (R-FL) and David Perdue (R-GA) for a bipartisan working group to consider compensation for college athletes.
"You have certain federal legislators who I think come at this from a very paternalistic or maternalistic standpoint of, 'We need to put these laws in place to protect college athletes.’ The nuanced approach of Sen. Murphy has been, 'We need to put these laws in place to empower these athletes.’"
The fact that senators from both major parties had taken an interest in college sports reform reflected just how far conversation around the issue had come - and how public opinion had shifted. One 2019 poll found that 60% of Americans supported letting college athletes profit off their name, image and likeness.
"The NCAA has abused their power," said Donna Lopiano, a Connecticut native who leads the Drake Group, which advocates for academic integrity in college sports. "Everybody in the country now knows that there are football and basketball coaches that are getting paid seven- and eight-figure salaries, and the athletic directors are paying themselves that kind of money, and the NCAA officials are paying themselves that kind of money, and they’re limiting benefits to athletes in an unfair way."
In June 2020, amid the COVID-19 pandemic and mass racial justice protests, Murphy copublished an op-ed with NBA All-Star Draymond Green arguing that recent events "require us to have an urgent conversation about the fundamental inequities in college sports today."
Later, he began working with an athlete-led group called the United College Athlete Advocates. He says he hopes in the future to organize an event with UConn hero Kemba Walker.
"Those athletes are important," he said. "People listen to them way more than they listen to me."
Collective bargaining for college athletes
Murphy has thus far introduced two pieces of legislation related to college sports: one that would create a national standard for name, image and likeness rights; and another that would designate college athletes as employees of their universities, allowing them to collectively bargain over working conditions.
The NIL bill, Murphy now says, may or may not prove necessary depending on what happens at the state level. So far, about two dozen states, including Connecticut, have passed laws allowing college athletes to sign endorsement deals, prompting the NCAA to loosen its rules.
Murphy’s bill would create a national standard with few constraints on the types of endorsements athletes can participate in. A rival proposal, introduced by Rubio, would let the NCAA set its own NIL rules, likely leading to tighter restrictions.
But while NIL legislation has grabbed most of the headlines, it’s Murphy’s other bill, the College Athlete Right to Organize Act, that has longtime college sports reform advocates most excited — and opponents most skeptical. Collective bargaining rights, proponents say, would truly shift power from schools, conferences and the NCAA and toward college athletes.
"Getting athletes access to name, image and likeness is important but totally insufficient," Murphy said. "I think the best path forward is to empower athletes through collective representation to be able to bargain for broader compensation or broader rights with colleges."
Advocates say this attitude is what differentiates Murphy from other reformers in high places.
"You have certain federal legislators who I think come at this from a very paternalistic or maternalistic standpoint of, 'We need to put these laws in place to protect college athletes,’" said Ricky Volante, a lawyer, activist and CEO of the nascent Professional Collegiate League, which promises to pay its athletes. "The nuanced approach of Sen. Murphy has been, 'We need to put these laws in place to empower these athletes.’"
The idea of collective bargaining rights for college athletes, though never put into practice, isn’t unheard of. In 2014, a regional director of the National Labor Relations Board ruled that football players at Northwestern University were effectively employees of the school, receiving scholarships as payment for their labor, and therefore had a right to unionize. The national board eventually reversed that decision, ending the players’ union drive, but the seed was planted in reformers’ minds.
Staurowsky said a bill like the College Athlete Right to Organize Act would move college sports "beyond the pretense of amateurism."
"What is missing in the infrastructure of college sports is an independent entity that represents the interest of the athletes," Staurowsky said. "That’s a very, very different conversation around addressing these interests compared to a number of other proposals that are out there."
Unlike NIL legislation, which has support in some form across the political spectrum, a bill allowing college athletes to collectively bargain would likely have difficulty passing Congress anytime soon. Murphy’s proposal was co-sponsored by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), with three Democrats introducing companion legislation in the House of Representatives, but no Republicans have come out in support.
In Lopiano’s view, Murphy is right to seek greater rights for athletes but goes too far in proposing they be allowed to bargain over compensation. She says college sports should function like other extracurricular activities, in which revenue is invested back into supporting the activity.
"[Murphy] wants to open up all institutional revenue that the university brings in terms of athletics, and that throws them into a pay-for-play situation," Lopiano said. "When you look at the band, when you look at an orchestra, when you look at all kinds of extracurricular activities, the kids don’t pay themselves."
Still, Murphy said he could envision packaging the College Athlete Right to Organize Act with a federal NIL standard as a way to enshrine rights for a broader swath of athletes.
"Our bottom line should be that we need broader protections for everybody," Murphy said, "not just the kids who can actually get the endorsement deals."
A future up for grabs
Even among reformers, opinions vary on what the future of American college sports should look like. Lopiano thinks athletes should receive wider benefits, including medical expenses and disability insurance but not the large salaries that pro athletes collect. Volante, meanwhile, imagines something akin to a free market for college athletes, in which schools can pay whatever they think a player is worth.
Murphy’s vision lies somewhere in between.
In Murphy’s ideal future, college athletes would have some guaranteed health and safety rights, plus the ability to collectively bargain for more. Meanwhile, schools with major college sports programs would be required to share some amount of their profits with athletes, with the details to be bargained.
Under this system, schools could decide whether they wanted to compete in the upper echelon of college sports, in which players in moneymaking sports are paid, or at a lower level in which they aren’t. UConn might choose to pay players to remain competitive with other top athletic schools, Murphy said, while Central Connecticut likely would not.
"I’d rather have us get into a world where we have a handful of big time college programs that are feeders to the pros and the athletes are compensated," Murphy said, "and then have true amateur athletics flourish among the 95% of college who don’t want to be in that category."
It’s easy to imagine objections to this model, from the logistic (colleges would hide profits through tricky accounting to avoid sharing with athletes) to the fundamental (schools might wind up spending even more money on sports, at the expense of other programming). Murphy acknowledged there are details still to work out but said now is the time to think big, to embrace wholesale change.
The NCAA and its defenders often argue that paying athletes would make college sports just like the pros, sapping the games of some ineffable quaintness. Murphy doesn’t see it that way.
"There is something special about a college team," Murphy said. "It’s a way for you to feel a common kinship with your state. There’s a sense of patriotism attached to rooting for UConn or Kentucky or UCLA.
"I don’t want to lose that," he said. "I just don’t see there has to be a choice: You can treat these kids fairly and have really active fan bases supporting really good college sports teams."