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
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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.

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