Anthony Gonzalez’s unease over NCAA amateurism rules began more than a decade ago.
He was a wide receiver for Ohio State’s football team when he noticed the autographs he signed for kids after games were handed over to memorabilia dealers. While they pocketed hundreds of dollars from the sale of his signature on eBay, Gonzalez never collected a cent.
Other stories heightened his weariness. His wife, Elizabeth, had been prohibited from offering swim lessons when she was an All-American swimmer at Stanford.
Before the launch of a political career that led Gonzalez to become one of the more prominent supporters of federal government action to allow college players to earn from money from the use of their name, image and likeness, the events shaped his views on expanding the limits on athlete compensation.
"Everyone else in the country is allowed to capitalize on name, image and likeness, including the coaches," Gonzalez said in a recent interview. "The only people in the country who can’t are the athletes. It never made sense to me."
As a first-term Republican representative for Ohio’s 16th congressional district, near Cleveland, Gonzalez plans to introduce a bill in the coming weeks that permits college athletes to profit from their name, image and likeness.
The drafting of legislation comes amid proposals from the NCAA to allow players to cut endorsement deals and pursue other business opportunities without jeopardizing their eligibility, redefining its strict amateurism model.
But the college sports governing body has asked for help from Congress, which can override state laws that first opened the door for players to be paid.
In a recent conference call with reporters, NCAA President Mark Emmert lobbied for a federal preemption, an issue Gonzalez raised previously this spring with The Dispatch. He is as much a pragmatist as a reformist.
"A 50-state patchwork of name, image and likeness laws would be a complete disaster for athletes and for college sports," Gonzalez said. "That’s really what sparked me to get into this issue."
California was the first state to take steps toward allowing athletes to earn outside income when it passed a measure last fall known as the "Fair Pay to Play Act," sparking a wave of similar legislation to be introduced in statehouses across the country and drawing attention from Capitol Hill.
The scrutiny gave Gonzalez a heightened stature for a 35-year-old freshman congressman who was elected to public office for the first time during the 2018 midterms.
"The truth is there just aren’t that many members of Congress who have played college sports," Gonzalez said.
As Gonzalez plotted his own legislation on the issue, he consulted with people he met during his standout career at Ohio State and later in the NFL with the Indianapolis Colts.
That included OSU athletic director Gene Smith, who co-chaired the NCAA working group on name, image and likeness and laid out a series of proposals last month. Gonzalez’s final two seasons with the Buckeyes, in 2005 and ’06, overlapped with the start of Smith’s tenure as the university’s AD.
Since he was sworn in last year, Gonzalez has introduced a half-dozen bills in Congress, though none appear as high-profile as a push toward permitting college athletes to cash in on potentially lucrative endorsement deals.
His experience gives lawmakers an envoy to the college sports industry.
"I think he’s the right guy at the right time," said former Ohio State coach Jim Tressel, who has remained a mentor to his former player.
In February, Gonzalez released a fact sheet to outline some early positions of his proposed bill. It addressed issues that included a reaffirmation of athletes’ status as amateurs rather than employees and implementation of "necessary guardrails to ensure that bad actors do not take advantage of student athletes."
The latter point might include restrictions on the compensation players are permitted to receive while they are being recruited as high school prospects or transfers.
Legislation from Gonzalez would mark at least the second bill to be introduced during this session of Congress. Mark Walker, a Republican representative from North Carolina, put forth a bill last year that would similarly let college athletes make money from their name, image and likeness. The House Ways and Means Committee has yet to take up the bill.
The road to passage of federal legislation is a winding one, an issue that NCAA officials acknowledge.
Even the introduction of Gonzalez’s bill has been delayed by the outbreak of the coronavirus that has preoccupied the country and the congressional schedule.
"There’s no question that passing a bill in Congress, under the best of circumstances, is a hard thing to do these days," Emmert said. "With a pandemic going on and an election going on, that makes it that much more challenging. Everybody is realistic about those difficulties."
Gonzalez, who attests to the merits of the college sports system as much as some of its drawbacks, is focused on plotting forward. His bill’s prep continues.
"I do feel a tremendous responsibility to do this the right way, to get this done correctly, to coordinate with all the right people, so that we protect the college system that we love so much," Gonzalez said. "The college system has been vastly beneficial to the athletes who have participated in it. We have to get this right at the congressional level, and I am taking full responsibility for striking the right balance."