Lead1, a professional association for the athletic directors at the 129 NCAA-member institutions which compete in college football, has taken unprecedented action to protect its interests amidst an unclear future for college sports.
Adam Rittenberg of ESPN reported on Friday that the association has formed a political action committee, aimed at supporting candidates for United States Congress who will represent the association’s views.
How the PAC will work
Political action committees are essentially fundraising and lobbying organizations. They communicate the wishes of its membership to members of Congress along with donate money to election/re-election campaigns of Congressmen/women of their choice. Often times, radio and television commercials along with print ads during elections are paid for by PACs.
By law, the amount of money that individuals can contribute to PACs is unlimited, but PACs must report who donates and how much. PACs are also not allowed to coordinate with or donate money directly to candidates. There is a way around those regulations, however, and Lead1’s involvement is key to that loophole.
501c organizations, like Lead1, can donate to PACs as if they were people. These “independent expenditure groups,” as federal election law refers to them, do not have to disclose their donors or the amounts donated. Actual people can donate money to these 501cs and “funnel” money to the PACs anonymously that way.
These 501cs are still not allowed to coordinate with or donate money directly to candidates, but they can participate in nonpartisan political activity provided that the majority of their activity go toward social welfare programs.
The Internal Revenue Service determines what goes under the umbrella of social welfare programs, and to this point, it’s been very broadly defined. Additionally, as long as these IEGs can demonstrate that the majority, or at least 50.1 percent of their activity exists under that umbrella, they are free to do nearly whatever they like with the other 49.9 percent.
In the latest campaign cycle, we saw IEGs run television ads in support of Florida Senator Marco Rubio’s re-election campaign, as an example of this kind of activity.
Through this process, a hypothetical situation can be created. Missouri Tigers Athletic Director Jim Sterk, Kansas Jayhawks Athletic Director Sheahon Zenger, or Kansas State Wildcats Athletic Director John Currie could donate as much money as they like completely anonymously to Lead1, which could then donate a large portion of that money to the new PAC Lead1 has created.
Additionally, Lead1 could then use that money to try to influence congressional elections in the favor of candidates who support the interests of Lead1.
As Lead1 is a private association, whether or not Currie, Sterk or Zenger are members isn’t publicly disclosed but Notre Dame AD Jack Swarbrick said in Rittenberg’s piece that participation is strong amongst the 129 FBS ADs. The possibilities for the impact that a PAC composed of these people could have is tremendous.
Potential Impacts of the PAC
While courts have been active on handling lawsuits regarding major college athletics, such as the Ed O’Bannon case, Congress has been mostly idle on the matter. There was an attempt in 2015 to enact legislation, which would have required colleges and universities to provide four-year scholarships and place other restrictions, but the bill saw little success.
That doesn’t mean that Congress hasn’t been active in terms of trying to regulate sports, however. Earlier this year a bill was introduced that would have made minor-league baseball players exempt from minimum wage laws.
One of the two legislators who introduced the bill withdrew her support, and the proposal never made it to the full House floor. While not directly related to NCAA matters, there are parallels that can be drawn between the two situations. Minor-league players’ quest for better wages could be compared to college players’ seeking stipends for their play, for instance.
These two recent bill introductions signal a divided sentiment in Congress regarding topics like the ongoing drama of whether college athletes at FBS schools should be paid. The presence of this Lead1 PAC, and all the influence it can wield, could unsettle that balance in favor of the colleges and universities.
Exactly how influential this new PAC will be, and whether or not that would lead to legislation that protects the profits of FBS institutions is purely speculation right now. The presence of this PAC does make that scenario more likely, however.