WASHINGTON - Republican Sen. Mitt Romney issued a stern warning to the NCAA on Wednesday over its treatment of college athletes.
"I know there are people who think we can hold this off," Romney said. "We're not going to make a change here. But the reality is Congress is going to act.
"We're coming for you," he said. "We're coming to help these young athletes in the future, and the athletes of today, make sure that they don't have to sacrifice their time and sacrifice, in many cases, their bodies without being fairly compensated."
Romney, a first-term senator from Utah who was the GOP nominee for president in 2012, is often credited with turning around the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics.
He made his NCAA remarks at a round-table discussion on Capitol Hill hosted by Rep. Mark Walker, a North Carolina Republican. Walker introduced a bill in March that would stop the NCAA from prohibiting college athletes from profiting off their name, image and likeness.
A similar bill - the "Fair Pay to Play Act" - was passed and signed into law in California this summer, setting off legislative efforts in a dozen states. The legislation would allow college athletes to endorse products, get paid for signing autographs or collect an appearance fee, for example. It would not require universities or colleges to pay the athletes for playing or make them university employees.
Now, college athletes are not allowed to make money off their name, image and likeness.
Walker said the NCAA was invited to participate in Wednesday's 90-minute event, but declined. The NCAA has a working group studying the issue of name, image and likeness rights and is expected to announce its findings by the end of the month.
Romney said Walker's bill has a "great deal of merit." But he said he would meet with supporters and opponents of the issue over the next few weeks before deciding what kind of legislation to introduce in the Senate.
"I do believe we have to take action," Romney said. "I'm convinced that we can adjust and we can address the extraordinary unfairness without in any way sacrificing the amateur nature of college sports or its attractiveness and impact on the American public."
ESPN analyst Jay Bilas, a former Duke basketball star and longtime proponent of allowing players to make money while in college, spent the day on Capitol Hill meeting with lawmakers about the issue. He said he was not advocating for or against any specific piece of legislation.
"Education and money are not mutually exclusive," Bilas said.
He said college athletics are not amateur sports nor are they minor-league sports, noting television contracts worth billions and coaching salaries in the millions.
"It's major league sports," he said.
Rep. John Yarmuth, a Kentucky Democrat, is a co-sponsor of Walker's legislation.
"The NCAA is not an organization that is interested in fairness," Yarmuth said. "They are an organization set up to exploit young men and women for money."
Donna Lopiano, president-elect of The Drake Group, said the NCAA is more than capable of handling this change.
"If any athletic administrator says this cannot be done, it is poppycock," said Lopiano, who is a former athletics director for women's sports at the University of Texas.
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There were no opponents of giving more rights to athletes at Wednesday's event.
"As a membership organization, the NCAA agrees changes are needed to continue to support student-athletes, but improvement needs to happen on a national level through the NCAA's rules-making process," the organization said after the California bill was signed into law.
"We will consider next steps in California while our members move forward with ongoing efforts to make adjustments to NCAA name, image and likeness rules that are both realistic in modern society and tied to higher education.
"As more states consider their own specific legislation related to this topic, it is clear that a patchwork of different laws from different states will make unattainable the goal of providing a fair and level playing field for 1,100 campuses and nearly half a million student-athletes nationwide."
On that, Walker agrees.
He wants the issue resolved at the federal level to stop states from producing a hodgepodge of regulations that could be used for recruiting advantages.
Walker pointed to it as a civil rights issue, saying that student-athletes are asked to give away their rights in order to earn a scholarship - something that doesn't apply to others on scholarship at colleges and universities.
While Walker's bill has yet to have a committee hearing, he said the passage of the California legislation - combined with the press coverage that surrounded it - has "lit a fire" around his bill.
The California bill does not take effect until 2023, though other states have bills with earlier starting dates. Walker said he hopes his bill can move as quickly as the spring.
"I'm calling upon the NCAA to find their own inner angel to really look at how to help the student-athlete," said Rep. Cedric Richmond, a Louisiana Democrat and co-sponsor of Walker's bill.