MISSOULA — Two new pieces of legislation that would cause broad shifts in the Montana college athletics sphere have been introduced in the state Senate.
Senate Bill 247 would allow colleges and universities in the state — both Big Sky Conference schools, Montana State-Billings, the six Montana schools in the Frontier Conference and tribal schools — to serve beer and wine at sporting events. Senate Bill 248 would allow student-athletes at those same schools to be compensated for use of their name, image and likeness (NIL) in Montana.
Sen. Ellie Boldman, D-Missoula, is the sponsor of both bills. Similar NIL legislation has passed in other states, including Michigan, Florida and California. Many college athletics conferences and states have revised rules and allowed for alcohol sales during intercollegiate athletic events.
Bipartisan support for SB 248 includes Speaker of the House Wylie Galt, R-Martinsdale, President of the Senate Mark Blasdel, R-Kalispell, and Majority Leader Jason Ellsworth, R-Hamilton, according to Boldman.
Athletes profiting off private usage of their name, image and likeness has been resisted by the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), college sports' largest governing body, which filed a Supreme Court brief on the topic Feb. 1.
The nation's highest court agreed to take NCAA v. Alston, an antitrust lawsuit. This follows the landmark case O'Bannon v. NCAA, which held that barring payments to student-athletes violated antitrust laws. However, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit limited the scope of the ruling, saying that colleges only must provide up to cost of attendance.
The Supreme Court declined to review the appeals court decision. Numerous lawsuits by former and current NCAA athletes have followed.
"Today, we asked the U.S. Supreme Court to reaffirm that the NCAA has ample latitude to govern college sports. As outlined in our brief, the lower court ruling distorts federal antitrust law and, in the process, wrongly redefines amateurism and undermines the NCAA's supervision of college athletics," Donald Remy, chief legal officer of the NCAA, said in a statement the day the brief was filed.
"The ruling also encourages judicial micromanagement and invites never-ending litigation as the NCAA seeks to improve the college athletic experience. In short, the lower court ruling greatly blurs the line between college and professional sports."
The 62-page case brief argues the Ninth Circuit misapplied antitrust laws, which "threaten not only the cherished American institution of college sports, but also procompetitive joint ventures more generally, to the detriment of consumers and business alike."
With legislation already passed in California that will allow athletes to profit, the NCAA knows it eventually must relent on its idea of pure amateurism. Currently, NCAA athletes can only receive scholarships and small stipends from schools.
The NCAA’s Board of Governors unanimously voted Feb. 16 in favor of allowing student-athletes to profit off their name, image and likeness.
"I think people understand the inequity of college athletes and the number of folks that are making millions and millions of dollars on these young athletes and to say that they don't have a right to their own name, their own image or likeness is absurd," Boldman said.
The NCAA formed an NIL working group in 2019 to explore the process of changing established rules regarding student-athlete compensation.
But the NCAA wants more control over the process, while student-athletes and many legislators at both the state and national level want a system closer to a free-market system.
The NCAA, while considered a nonprofit, brings in billions of dollars a year. It has made coaches and administrators wealthy. Colleges and universities also profit. Proponents of NIL legislation and rules feel student-athlete endorsement and advertising deals would begin to give them more of a fair share of the large profits.
NIL bills have received significant bipartisan support at both the state and national levels. Montana's bill does not have language forcing colleges to pay student-athletes to play, a common misconception.
"Colleges are not in the business of paying athletes to play," Boldman said. "I think folks have to start learning that phrase, what is your NIL — it's your name, image, your likeness.
"The very idea a human being loses rights to their name, just because they play college sports, it's obscene."
As soon as next year, beer and wine could be sold at college athletic events across Montana.
SB 247 would allow businesses with a catering endorsement for beer and wine to contract with Montana, Montana State, MSU-Billings, the state's Frontier Conference schools and tribal colleges to serve to the general public at sporting events.
It also would create a revenue-sharing program to assure the schools get a fair cut of the profits. The state's Board of Regents has not acted on this topic, opening the door for legislation.
"This really is not unorthodox and Montana's time has come," Boldman said. "The one feedback I got from my fellow legislators, being from Missoula, is that folks around the state really wanted to see it made available for all colleges."
With alcohol currently prohibited at games, binge drinking before contests and at halftime (if re-entry is allowed) can be problematic, Boldman said.
"That idea of the prohibition effect, that actually universities see binge drinking actually go down and it really enhances the family experience," she said. "It really does enhance everyone's ability to, you know, have a good time and enjoy college football, basketball and it certainly applies to other women's and men's sports, too."