Congress Is Taking On the Escalating NCAA Crisis

A Senate committee grilled the college-sports president over mistreatment of student-athletes.

NCAA president Mark Emmert
National Journal
Jamie Lovegrove
See more stories about...
Jamie Lovegrove
July 10, 2014, 9:18 a.m.

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.

What We're Following See More »
27TH AMENDMENT
Congress Can’t Seem Not to Pay Itself
2 hours ago
WHY WE CARE

Rep. Dave Young can't even refuse his own paycheck. The Iowa Republican is trying to make a point that if Congress can't pass a budget (it's already missed the April 15 deadline) then it shouldn't be paid. But, he's been informed, the 27th Amendment prohibits him from refusing his own pay. "Young’s efforts to dock his own pay, however, are duck soup compared to his larger goal: docking the pay of every lawmaker when Congress drops the budget ball." His bill to stiff his colleagues has only mustered the support of three of them. Another bill, sponsored by Rep. Jim Cooper (D-TN), has about three dozen co-sponsors.

Source:
THE QUESTION
How Far Away from Cleveland is the California GOP Staying?
3 hours ago
THE ANSWER

Sixty miles away, in Sandusky, Ohio. "We're pretty bitter about that," said Harmeet Dhillon, vice chairwoman of the California Republican Party. "It sucks to be California, we're like the ugly stepchild. They need us for our cash and our donors, they don't need us for anything else."

ATTORNEY MAY RELEASE THEM ANYWAY
SCOTUS Will Not Allow ‘DC Madam’ Phone Records to Be Released
3 hours ago
WHY WE CARE

Anyone looking forward to seeing some boldfaced names on the client list of the late Deborah Jeane Palfrey, the "DC Madam," will have to wait a little longer. "The Supreme Court announced Monday it would not intervene to allow" the release of her phone records, "despite one of her former attorneys claiming the records are “very relevant” to the presidential election. Though he has repeatedly threatened to release the records if courts do not modify a 2007 restraining order, Montgomery Blair Sibley tells U.S. News he’s not quite sure what he now will do."

Source:
DOWN TO THE WIRE
Sanders Looks to Right the Ship in Indiana
19 hours ago
THE LATEST

Hillary Clinton may have the Democratic nomination sewn up, but Bernie Sanders apparently isn't buying it. Buoyed by a poll showing them in a "virtual tie," Sanders is "holding three rallies on the final day before the state primary and hoping to pull off a win after a tough week of election losses and campaign layoffs." 

Source:
‘SPOOKED’ IN NORTH DAKOTA
Cruz Delegates Having Second Thoughts?
23 hours ago
THE LATEST

As unbound delegates pledged to Ted Cruz watch him "struggle to tread water in a primary increasingly dominated by Trump, many of them, wary of a bitter convention battle that could rend the party at its seams, are rethinking their commitment to the Texas senator."

Source:
×