House chamber (CTNewsJunkie photo)

In a bid to recruit and retain talent at Connecticut’s university sports teams, House lawmakers approved a bill Tuesday which includes a provision to let college athletes make money from commercial endorsements. 

The proposal passed 136 to 11 as part of an omnibus bill containing more than a dozen sections related to higher education. 

The proposed change in state law comes as the NCAA continues to consider whether student athletes should be allowed to profit from endorsements using their name, image or likeness. Some worry that if the association does not act, Connecticut could lose players to colleges in more than a dozen other states which have already made the change.

“For Connecticut to ensure that we aren’t losing some of our top-tier players to other states with private contracts that could be half a million or more dollars and to ensure the competitiveness of our state’s institutions, we decided that this was the time to get going on passing this language,” Rep. Josh Elliott, co-chairman of the Higher Education and Employment Advancement Committee, said. 

Although it would impact players at both public and private universities, the issue has been one of concern for athletic officials at the University of Connecticut. When a similar bill was screened during a public hearing last year, UConn Athletic Director David Benedict submitted written testimony which said the school would much prefer to see an NCAA-wide change. However, the association has so far not acted and the university worked with legislators on this year’s bill. 

During a press conference Tuesday, House Speaker Matt Ritter pointed to concerns from UConn women’s basketball coach Geno Auriemma that continued inaction could put Connecticut at a disadvantage. 

“When Coach Auriemma is worried about player retention potentially or player recruiting, people should pay attention,” Ritter said. 

Debate on the bill Tuesday was largely directed at its logistics. The concept was packaged in a wide-ranging document that spanned a number of different topics. Several lawmakers objected to the practice of passing laws through “aircraft carriers” or “dummy bills.” But there was bipartisan support for letting student athletes benefit from paid endorsements.

During the debate, Elliott said around 15 states already had passed similar bills and more than 20 others were considering the concept. Rep. Charles Ferraro, R-West Haven, said the issue seemed likely to affect future recruitment at Connecticut schools. 

“I would guess if I was an entrepreneuring type of athlete, I would probably apply to a college in one of the states where that was allowed,” Ferraro said. 

However, Rep. Doug Dubitsky, a Chaplin Republican who voted against the bill, worried the bill’s language left too much discretion to colleges and universities to decide which endorsements student athletes could profit from. 

“We need to be very, very careful about giving a school the right to veto choices and the speech of student athletes,” Dubitsky said. “If we’re going to allow endorsements we need to allow endorsements.”

The bill will now go to the Senate for consideration.