WASHINGTON — It was only a few minutes into a congressional hearing on Tuesday morning when Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut did what people in college sports often like to do: He compared the past with the present.
The senator, though, was not looking to flatter the National Collegiate Athletic Association.
“A lot of the rhetoric and images that we hear about college sports are as antiquated as leather helmets,” Senator Blumenthal, a Democrat, said. “And that makes me angry because I think the present state of college sports is exploitive.”
After months of threats and challenges from the country’s statehouses, the N.C.A.A. faced skeptical senators on Tuesday. But for all the frustration the lawmakers projected — over rules forbidding players from earning money from their fame, over how long it might take to change them — Congress did not seem poised to act immediately in a debate that is central to the economy of college sports.
That reality, the result of a Washington rooted in lobbying, election-year politics and with a history of inertia when it comes to college sports, could have repercussions nationwide as states grapple with challenging the N.C.A.A. on their own. Lawmakers in dozens of states are considering whether to follow California’s lead from September and pressure the multibillion-dollar college sports industry to let student-athletes earn some money from endorsements and other deals.
The wait-and-see strategy of Congress could very well embolden some in the statehouses as they weigh proposals, including some on the table that could take effect this year, if passed. Still, even with federal intervention hardly imminent and the N.C.A.A. signaling no significant changes before next year, it was perhaps never clearer than on Tuesday that new nationwide rules for college sports are far closer than they have ever been.
The most meaningful hints of what could come are likely to be seen in April, when the N.C.A.A. is expected to publish some of the recommendations and ideas that college sports leaders, like university presidents and athletic directors, have been debating behind closed doors. Although Mark Emmert, the president of the N.C.A.A., suggested on Tuesday that he would encourage an accelerated process, a final vote on any new rules would probably not happen until next year, a consequence of an N.C.A.A. governance system layered with bureaucracy.
The N.C.A.A., which has a membership of about 1,100 colleges and universities, fears what it calls “a patchwork” of rules among the states, contending that any variations from one state to another would undercut and imperil the integrity of competition for about 500,000 student-athletes.
“It is clear to me that the imperative of national consistency, fairness and equity requires a federal solution,” said Douglas A. Girod, the chancellor of the University of Kansas, who added that because Division I universities play nationwide, “only a federal approach that creates a level playing field for competing athletes and universities makes sense.”
Yet as he sat at the same witness table, Mr. Emmert stopped just short of seeking congressional action and told senators that his organization “may need your help.”
“The N.C.A.A. has got this working group, and we’re kind of waiting for them to come up with a set of recommendations,” Senator John Thune of South Dakota, the chamber’s second-ranking Republican, said in an interview. “If they require legislation, I think we would be open.”
But in a separate interview, Senator Chris Murphy, Democrat of Connecticut, said it was “hard to imagine a world in which a bill related to college athletics makes it to an open debate on the Senate floor,” at least in the short term.
“We can’t get a prescription drug benefit to the floor, we can’t get a war declaration to the floor, but we’re going to get a college athletics bill to the floor?” Senator Murphy, who has been critical of the N.C.A.A., said in his office.
It is not clear what kind of solution Congress could ultimately fashion. But the reception on Capitol Hill was a signal by itself of the bipartisan scrutiny that college sports leaders will probably be dealing with for a while.
“This whole system has to be reformed,” Senator Blumenthal said. “The N.C.A.A. has a role to play, but only if it gets into the game, which, right now, it is failing to do.”
Later, Senator Marsha Blackburn, Republican of Tennessee, recited a list of other areas where she believed the N.C.A.A. had failed, and said: “A question that must be going through a lot of minds of student-athletes and their parents is how in the world are they going to be able to trust you to get this right?”
Of course, there are also questions about whether Congress could get it right.
“If Congress does act, it should advance college athlete freedoms being advanced by the states, not roll them back,” Ramogi Huma, the executive director of the National College Players Association, an advocacy group for athletes, said during his testimony on Tuesday.
Mr. Emmert declined to be interviewed after the hearing. None of the proposals that have been introduced in Congress have gained the public support of legislative leaders.
Senator Thune, who flatly said that “having each state doing their own thing is problematic,” suggested that day could come.
“Sports is something that cuts across party lines, it cuts across geography and it’s so ingrained in our culture,” he said. “Everyone wants to see that if nothing else in our country works, they want to see our sports work.”