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Blumenthal at Commerce Committee: COVID-19 Waivers Only the Latest Example of College Athletes Being Used as Profit Centers

[WASHINGTON, DC] – At a hearing today of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science & Transportation on “Exploring a Compensation Framework for Intercollegiate Athletes,” U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) demanded witnesses representing college athletics program answer: “Isn’t it unethical to ask a college athlete to assume the risk of participating [in college athletics], which has the effect of waiving their rights in court if that athlete becomes sick and if his or her future is in peril. Not to mention their health. If they are affected by coronavirus, isn’t that unethical and shouldn’t it be illegal?”


Yesterday, Blumenthal and Cory Booker (D-NJ) introduced legislation to empower college athletes during the COVID-19 pandemic. Schools across the country have recently required college athletes to sign liability waivers, exempting institutions from being held accountable for the spread of COVID-19. College athletes who refuse to sign away their rights or fail to abide by the terms of the exploitative waivers can be prohibited from participating in team activities, denied admittance to athletic facilities, and cut from their teams – putting their athletic scholarships and academic futures in jeopardy.


“We come here in the context of a history of athletes unfortunately being used as profit centers. They are a source of revenue to the colleges. Very often they are unable to benefit from their name, image, and likeness. By now, I think we’ve thoroughly established it in this Committee, through our Subcommittee hearing back in February and now in this one, but there’s just abundant evidence of the profiting by schools at the expense of athletes,” Blumenthal said. “I think the question for us is how do we protect the athletes? How do we make sure that they are not maybe inadvertently victims of a process that puts them behind profits? And I think the latest example frankly are these waivers.”


“Senator Booker and I have introduced legislation that essentially would prohibit them and President Drake, you and I spoke yesterday about the Buckeye Pledge. I’ve since reviewed it. I know in good faith you told me it was a pledge, but it says very explicitly that, ‘I understand that although the university is following the Coronavirus guidelines issued by the CDC and other experts to reduce the spread of infection, I can never be completely shielded from all risk of illness caused by COVID-19 or other infections.’ Then it goes on to say that ‘Signer’ and the athlete signs this document, ‘Acknowledges that these expectations and pledge are a condition of my participation, etc.’ The other pledges are even more explicit. University of Tennessee which we have for example, University of Missouri, I understand we’re trying to get SMU, but all of them as the University of Missouri says, ‘I pledge to accept the responsibility to abide by these guidelines in order to keep myself my teammates, etc. safe.’


“They use the word risk and they provide for an assumption of risk by the athlete. That is in effect a waiver from my standpoint as a lawyer.”


The College Athlete Pandemic Safety (CAPS) Act would block the kind of blanket COVID-19 liability waivers schools have coerced college athletes to sign, instead empowering college athletes to enforce their rights in court. The bill also prohibits schools from canceling the scholarships of athletes that choose not to participate in a team activity out of fear of contracting COVID-19. The legislation would also require schools to inform all college athletes when an athlete or staff member tests positive for COVID-19, and directs the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to develop health and safety guidelines related to COVID-19 for college athletes.


In a second round of questioning, Blumenthal asked for a commitment that college athletic programs disclose the number of COVID-19 cases that occur at each school, consistent with patient confidentiality requirements.


Last week, Blumenthal and Booker wrote National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) President Mark Emmert seeking a prohibition on COVID-19 liability waivers. A copy of the full letter to the NCAA is available here.