College Athletes Compensation Heard; Partisanship Alleged on Bridge Bill

Feb. 3, 2020, 6:09 p.m. ·

Kate Bolz speaking at a microphone in the legislative chamber with two men in the background and more in the lobby behind the glass walls.
Kate Bolz speaks at the capitol as a state senator. (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)

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Nebraska college athletes could be paid for the use of their name, image, or likeness under a proposal heard in the Legislature Monday. And charges of partisanship were raised -- and denied -- after several senators switched their votes on a bill dealing with county bridges.

Last year, California became the first state to pass a law allowing college athletes to be paid for use of their name, image and likeness. The law runs counter to a rule by the National Collegiate Athletic Association, or NCAA, the organization that governs college sports. The NCAA has now said it will make a new rule, as other states consider similar legislation.

Jeremiah Sirles, a former Husker and National Football League veteran, gave an example to show how he thinks the proposal would help student-athletes who won’t necessarily make it to the pros.

“We had a college stipend that we would get every single month and it was right around $750. I was lucky enough and blessed enough I never had to send some of that money back home to my family or to people struggling back in my community. But I know plenty of individuals who I called my dear friends that would send at least half of that back home so that people could put the lights on at the house for their younger brothers and sisters. Now imagine that they had an opportunity to post an Instagram for $700. Man! In college $700 that was -- you couldn't have asked for more money!” Sirle said.

Sen. Steve Lathrop wondered if allowing athletes to be paid would give an advantage to schools with wealthier boosters. Lathrop used the University of South Dakota as an example.

“Maybe it's the veterinary clinic offers some guy $20,000 to be the voice of the veterinary clinic. But down in Dallas, Texas, the oil company offers them $500,000 to be the spokesperson for some oil company. And pretty soon it becomes about what are the sponsors willing to pay the athletes and this becomes a way of basically getting in a bidding war for athletes,” Lathrop said.

Ramogi Huma of the National College Players Association said that’s already happening, even under existing NCAA rules that prohibit paying athletes.

“Right now, whereas alumni cannot aboveboard provide players these opportunities, instead, they get together and they pull their money together to hire the best coaches, or to buy out the contract of a poor-performing coach. They recruit on facilities, luxury boxes and…locker rooms -- all of these things,” Huma said. “It's actually called an arms race.”

Sen. Ernie Chambers said he would go farther than the legislation, by making athletes university employees and paying them directly, a proposal he first introduced nearly 40 years ago.

University of Nebraska Senior Deputy Athletic Director Garret Klassy testified neutral on the bill, saying the university is working on the issue. And law professor Steve Willborn said an interstate group will draft a uniform law for all states to consider. The Business and Labor Committee took no immediate action.

In debate by the full Legislature Monday, senators took up a proposal by Sen. Kate Bolz to allow counties to use bonding authority they already have to repair courthouses, to expand to cover bridges as well.

The Legislature’s Government, Military, and Veterans Affairs Committee advanced the bill 8-0 last April, after the state was hit with record flooding.

But Monday, four of the senators who voted for it – Tom Brewer, Mike Hilgers, Andrew LaGrone and John Lowe – said they now oppose it.

Lowe said he had originally voted in reaction to the flooding crisis.

“I voted for LB267 and (amendment) 1245 out of committee because of my emotions. I'm going to have to reverse that on this vote and vote against it. Because now I'm using my head and my heart,” Lowe said.

Lowe and other senators who switched said they now object to the bill as a way for counties to increase property taxes without a vote of the people.

Sen. Carol Blood, who still supports the bill, criticized using emotionalism as a reason to switch sides.

“I sit here in disbelief as I hear people standing at the mic saying that they made decisions based on emotions --because that is not good policymaking -- and that

they voted incorrectly based on that emotion at the time.

So I went back through my notes from the hearing, because when I make decisions I do that based on facts,” Blood said.

And Sen. Megan Hunt suggested a different explanation.

“When you see people who support a bill coming out of committee with full bipartisan support, and then you see them change their mind, perhaps after the introducer has announced that they have higher political goals, I think you have to ask if there's partisanship involved in that and I think that's what was going on on the floor today,” Hunt said.

Since the bill advanced out of committee last year, Bolz has declared her candidacy for the Democratic nomination to challenge incumbent Republican Congressman Jeff Fortenberry. All four senators who switched to oppose her bill are registered Republicans in the officially nonpartisan Legislature.

Brewer, chairman of the committee, rejected Hunt’s interpretation of the reasoning of senators who switched their positions.

“To say this is a political thing I don't agree with, but I don't have any doubt that that's her opinion on it. I think we will be much more careful in the future not to vote bills out if there's any doubt in our mind whatsoever,” Brewer said.

Lowe, LaGrone and Hilgers also denied they switched for partisan reasons, mentioning other alternatives that counties could use to get approval for bonds to repair bridges, such as holding a special election.

Bolz herself said she could not read her colleagues’ minds or know their motivations, but wants to continue working on the issue to solve the problem of defective bridges. The Legislature adjourned for the day without reaching a vote on her bill.