Congressman Anthony Gonzalez leans on experience to help craft federal athletes’ rights legislation

It all hit Anthony Gonzalez about 15 years ago during his time as an Ohio State wide receiver. It was tradition for the Buckeyes to sign autographs for fans after games.

“As players, you prioritize the kids. So you go through and want to get every single kid,” Gonzalez said. “I was that kid one day. I would get autographs, go into school and show my buddies. And be really proud of it.”

Gonzalez’s dad once noticed — after a particular Ohio State game — an adult using one of those innocent kids as a prop. The adult was a memorabilia dealer. The autographs showed up on eBay.

Somebody somewhere was making money off the Gonzalez’s name, image and likeness. Just not him.

You should know where this headed, especially now that Gonzalez, 35, is a Republican in the U.S. House of Representatives out of Ohio.

Gonzalez was one of the “stars” of the Congressional hearing on name, image and likeness on Feb. 11. Bleeding scarlet and gray, he is one of many legislators crafting a name, image and likeness bill. He is also perhaps the most qualified to do so.

In an evolving debate, Gonzalez is one of the few legislators who understands the issues. He lived the life as an All-Big Ten wideout struggling to make ends meet at the end of the month. Then as a pro, he prospered playing six years with the Colts and Patriots.

Name, image and likeness legislation seeks to blend those worlds without — as skeptics contend — college athletics crashing and burning.

“First of all, how can you take advantage of a little kid like that? Second of all, it doesn’t feel like the right outcome,” Gonzalez told CBS Sports. “If you had NIL rules and empowered the athletes to [be compensated], it brings all that out into the light. It becomes a more logical and sane world as opposed [to] — I don’t want to call it seedy, but it almost is.”

The NCAA has changed its stance on allowing such rights to athletes; it is no longer fighting the eventuality. The association’s board of governors announced last year it would allow athletes to “benefit from” their name, image and likeness.

Finalizing that definition is one of the most significant endeavors in NCAA history. Gonzalez’s bill — one of at least three in the works by Congressmen — is still being written. It is based on five standards:

  • The “college athletic system” would be preserved.
  • All athletes in all NCAA divisions would benefit from national legislation.
  • That national legislation would “pre-empt” the California law due to go into effect January 2023. (Gonzalez contends that it’s too late for that law because athletes are already being recruited for 2023.)
  • Athletes would not be considered employees of a school.
  • “Sufficient guardrails” from “bad actors” in recruiting would be provided.

That’s the big picture. The name, image and likeness discussion is rushing toward a tipping point. State governments, the federal government and the NCAA are all actively involved in a final definition. Given the current climate in Congress, a federal bill may take 1-2 years.

A bill proposed in the state of Florida may become law July 1. Meanwhile, an NCAA working group is due to submit recommendations in April.

“The reality of the calendar means we probably need to do something this summer,” Gonzalez said. “I don’t think we can sit on our hands and wait ’til next Congress. We’ve got to do something in this Congress.”

Gonzalez got to this place out of a sense of fairness. Forget eBay autographs for a second.

“Why can’t a college swimmer teach swimming lessons?” Gonzalez said.

For that matter, why can’t a player get compensated for their autograph? Why can’t any player profit off their own YouTube channel?

The NCAA can’t answer those questions at the moment. This has become a bipartisan. The reason up to 30 states have name, image and likeness bills in the works is that the consideration of basic rights for college athletes reaches across both parties. It’s a winning issue.

In fact, the biggest scandal in Ohio State history is about to be rendered moot. Part of the infamous Tattoogate case involved Buckeyes selling their gear, rings, awards in exchange for cash and favors. In essence, a lot of what this legislation would allow.

“I still get offended by the fact. in this country, [college athletes are] still one class of individuals who cannot participate in NIL,” Gonzalez said.

His father, Eduardo, came to the United States with his family from Cuba as Fidel Castro was rising to power. Eduardo eventually attended to Michigan and played football with his roommate, Les Miles.

That relationship inspired Miles to go to Cuba in 2016. Eduardo became an entrepreneur, going on to own and operate multiple steel plants.

“Our country is so amazing, right?” Anthony said. “My dad didn’t know the language, didn’t know anybody. Within one generation, you can integrate. You can start a business. You can run a business. Your kid can run for Congress. That doesn’t happen in most countries.”

That’s highlights the central issue of this debate. The country with the best democracy in the world doesn’t allow college athletes to capitalize on their full worth.

Some think name, image and likeness legislation will corrupt the game. But will more money for players actually turn fans off? Athletes already get scholarships, insurance, medical care, enhanced nutrition and — at some schools — up to $30,000 free and clear.

Ask that receiver who once gave away his autograph if fans will stay away. He is the same kid who collected them when he was young.

“When I was a little kid, I was obsessed with college football and college football athletes and what games were on and memorizing statistics,” Gonzalez said. “No matter what we do on NIL, there are going to be kids around the country who feel the exact same way.”

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