Congress is stepping up pressure on NCAA President Mark Emmert to make urgent reforms to college athletics, as he continues to defend the organization's amateurism model despite mounting legal and public-relations troubles.
While many of the most debated critiques of the college-sports system have existed for decades, recent public attention and several prominent court cases have pushed the issue to a critical point and motivated congressional involvement.
Emmert appeared in a heated three-hour Senate Commerce Committee hearing Wednesday alongside prominent critics and supporters of the NCAA, two months after a similar session in the House.
As senators demand answers to rising public debate over treatment and compensation of student-athletes, Emmert is trying to tread a thin line — assuaging specific policy concerns for a system he agrees needs fixing without overpromising on wholesale restructuring of the broader college-sports model in which he still has faith.
But the hearing comes on the heels of a series of damaging months for the NCAA's defense of the status quo system.
National Labor Relations Board Regional Director Peter Ohr sent shock waves through college athletics in March when he ruled that Northwestern University's scholarship football players are employees of the school, and therefore have the ability to vote to unionize. Ballots from the resulting election have been impounded pending a Northwestern appeal to the national branch of the NLRB — an appeal that has received supporting briefs from the NCAA and several other major private universities with football programs.
Last month, former UCLA basketball player Ed O'Bannon took the NCAA to trial in a case first filed in 2009, arguing that the NCAA had violated antitrust law by preventing athletes from receiving money for their likeness, particularly in television deals and video games. Emmert testified in that trial in late June. A similar lawsuit filed by former Arizona State and Nebraska quarterback Sam Keller will go to trial next year.
Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., noted the legislative branch's important but often underutilized role in sports oversight, as Congress looks for ways to get more involved in an issue that has seen little progress despite several decades of criticism.
But it remains unclear how partisan gridlock could influence potential congressional action, as Republicans have expressed more skepticism in government intervention on the issue and tend to oppose unionization efforts in any industry.
"I can't tell if you're in charge or a minion" to the schools, said Sen. Claire McCaskill. "If you're merely a monetary pass-through, why should you exist?"
Sen. Dan Coats, a Republican from Indiana where the NCAA is headquartered, was one of few members of the committee to express any admiration for Emmert's handling of reform efforts. And Rockefeller, who is retiring after this term, conditionally promised that the committee would continue to look into the issue — if his party keeps control of the Senate.
In response to tough questioning, Emmert made restrained assurances that he would work within his authority to push reforms for the most glaring issues in the current system, including multiyear scholarships, cost of attendance, athlete time demands, stipends for family travel to games, and health care coverage. But he vehemently rejected the notion that student-athletes should be recognized as employees.
"The implications of converting a student-athlete model to an employer-employee model would utterly transform college sports into something that doesn't begin to look like what it looks like today," Emmert said.
The witness panel included former players Myron Rolle and Devon Ramsay and historian Taylor Branch, whose 2011 Atlantic article "The Shame of College Sports" helped bring widespread public attention to the issue.
Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., took the opportunity to bring up her sexual-assault survey report released earlier in the day, finding that more than 20 percent of Division I, II, and III colleges allow athletic departments to oversee sexual-assault allegations against athletes. Emmert said he was "dismayed and surprised" by the finding and that it represented an "enormous" amount of conflicts of interest. Earlier in the hearing, Emmert asserted that he lacks the authority to make some of the reforms to college sports that he would ideally like to see, as college presidents hold much of the power. But McCaskill remained unimpressed.
"I can't tell if you're in charge or a minion" to the schools, McCaskill said. "If you're merely a monetary pass-through, why should you exist?"
"Let me be very clear — it is exploitation when you have an athlete working 60, 70 hours a week, but yet still not able to afford the basic necessities," said Sen. Cory Booker.
Sen. Cory Booker, a former college football player himself at Stanford, was the most direct of all in his criticism of the NCAA's structure, saying the problems today are the same as when he played over 20 years ago.
"Let me be very clear — it is exploitation when you have an athlete working 60, 70 hours a week, but yet still not able to afford the basic necessities," the New Jersey Democrat said, later adding, "We've seen the NCAA move quickly when money and reputation is on the table. Where is the urgency?"
Emmert could have predicted the hostile welcome in Washington. In May, three Democratic members of the committee — Rockefeller, McCaskill, and Booker — sent a letter to Emmert indicating their concern over the NCAA's structure and governance of college athletics. But Emmert expressed optimism for the future, describing the hearing as a "useful cattle prod."
"It makes sure we know that the world is watching, that the Senate is watching," Emmert said. "I believe we will wind up in the right place in a couple of months. If we don't, I'm sure we'll have these conversations again."
These early hearings are likely just the beginning of increased congressional involvement in college athletics, though specific intervention or legislation remains off the table for now. In his closing statements, Rockefeller criticized the committee for not making use of oversight powers over the NCAA throughout the years, while Booker suggested another hearing be held with "the real decision makers" — college presidents.