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NC athlete ‘fair-treatment’ bill nearing end zone? A look at its potential impacts

North Carolina coach Larry Fedora leads the Tar Heels in Kenan Memorial Stadium in this 2016 file photo. The state legislature is considering empaneling a study group to determine what can or should be done to promote the fair treatment of athletes at state universities.
North Carolina coach Larry Fedora leads the Tar Heels in Kenan Memorial Stadium in this 2016 file photo. The state legislature is considering empaneling a study group to determine what can or should be done to promote the fair treatment of athletes at state universities. rwillett@newsobserver.com

Provided they can resolve their differences over a last-minute addition to the measure, a bill calling for a legislative study of what consultants call “fair treatment of college athletes” in the UNC system appears likely to clear the N.C. General Assembly this year.

After making it through the N.C. Senate on a 49-0 vote in April, the proposal from Sens. Jeff Tarte, Warren Daniel and Dan Bishop got another unanimous, 111-0 endorsement in the state House just before legislators adjourned for the holiday.

But that wasn’t quite enough to put it on Gov. Roy Cooper’s desk for a signature because before they voted, House members tacked on an otherwise-unrelated provision calling for the State Board of Education to set up a new, experimental teacher-training program.

Senators had been working on a similar idea, but their version differs somewhat from the House’s and the chairs of the Senate’s education committee still prefer theirs, said Daniel, R-Burke. Following their lead, the full Senate withheld its agreement to the revised bill, forcing it into a House-Senate conference.

Seven legislators now have to decide how to reconcile the text so the chambers can act on the bill after they reconvene in August. Daniel, the conference committee’s Senate-side co-chairman, said he’s going to let the conferees “enjoy their vacations” for a few days more before prodding them to get down to business.

He added that he’d like to complete the negotiation “prior to the reconvening,” meaning “we’ll probably have to do this by phone or electronically.”

By itself, the fair-treatment bill doesn’t propose any changes to state law or policy, but it’s supposed to set the stage for some in 2018.

It proposes the creation of a 13-member study group to be chaired by Lt. Gov. Dan Forest to look at 11 major issues surrounding college sports, including such matters as whether college athletes should get “profit sharing” from their schools for the schools’ commercial use of their images.

Player health, lawyer and agent representation, and teams’ time demands on their athletes are also on the table for examination.

Before voting, House members made only one substantive change to the fair-treatment-for-athletes section of the bill, deleting the word “unionization” from the list of topics the study commission would have to address.

Daniel said the Senate co-sponsors have already agreed “that was probably an appropriate change,” and that it doesn’t forestall a possible discussion of the idea that college athletes in the state could someday join a labor union.

“The way the bill’s written, it leaves it opened-ended, the topics the commission could look at,” he said. “If the lieutenant governor and the commission members wanted to examine that, it could be done. But the House was more comfortable not having it in the preamble.”

He added that he’s “sure” the House struck the word because North Carolina has “never been a unionized state.”

Its laws forbid the UNC system’s universities and other public agencies from engaging in collective bargaining with unions.

Daniel said he’s been “a little bit surprised” that the study bill hasn’t sparked more debate among his colleagues, but suspects that’s mostly because the hard work is yet to come.

“The real meat of the issue will happen once the commission makes recommendations, those get reduced to bill form and we start debating what we’re actually going to do,” he said.

But Tarte, like Bishop a Republican from Mecklenburg County, thinks the issue of how college athletes should be treated has real traction, given the attention it’s getting in the national media.

“There’s this gut feeling that says we’ve lost of the perspective of looking out for the student-athletes as a first priority,” Tarte said, explaining the bill’s appeal. “Like everything else, it tends to gravitate around money, and generating lots of revenue for the NCAA and the member institutions. We’re talking a multi-billion-dollar industry on the backs of these athletes.”

Ray Gronberg: 919-419-6648, @rcgronberg

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