Bipartisan Bill Aims To Protect NCAA Athletes

Aug 5, 2013
Originally published on August 5, 2013 4:32 pm

The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), the organization that regulates college sports, is taking some heat from members of Congress.

The House is considering legislation, called the NCAA Accountability Act, that would require member colleges to guarantee that players’ multi-year scholarships aren’t dropped if they get injured.

The measure would also require that students athletes have a way to appeal violations before punishments are given out.


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It's HERE AND NOW. And the NCAA, the organization that runs big-time college sports, is taking some heat from members of Congress who want to make law what the NCAA says they take care with rules. The House is considering legislation that will require member colleges to guarantee that players with multiyear scholarships aren't dropped if they get injured. It would also require better tracking of possible injuries like concussions, and will require that schools and students have a way to appeal violations before they get punished for them.

Brad Wolverton covers the NCAA for the Chronicle of Higher Education and joins us from the NPR studios in Washington. So Brad, start with the scholarship issue. What's the problem that members of Congress perceive, and what do they want to do?

BRAD WOLVERTON: Well, first of all, about two-thirds of NCAA institutions at the Division I level offer multiyear scholarships for athletes, but very few of them actually give any of them - those awards out. So it's sort of like the coaches want to protect themselves and not have to offer these awards in case, you know, the student athletes might not be up to snuff or may not be as good as they had expected - the coaches. So this bill would guarantee that the students who play contact sports, like football, basketball, soccer, lacrosse, are guaranteed multiyear scholarships so that those couldn't be taken away for athletic reasons, like if they weren't as good as a coach wanted, or for injury.

YOUNG: Well, and the injury part is so important because a student might not let on that they're injured if they think they're going to lose their scholarship.

WOLVERTON: That's what we heard from the lawmakers last week, and what we've seen in some of the NCAA's research about this is that the students are afraid to lose their slot on the team. They move down on the depth chart if they're on the football team or just maybe even lose their scholarship. So these lawmakers are making a big push for the health and safety of players. They're basically saying that your judicial processes aren't fair and your games are dangerous, and you're not really doing enough to protect the health and safety of these players.

So in addition to the guarantee of these four-year or multiyear scholarships, the legislation would require that all colleges perform baseline concussion tests on players. And this is something that about two-thirds of them do already, but it would require colleges to do that. And then it also gets into a little bit of the nitty-gritty on the judicial process, the due process that's not allowed for students and for institutions as they go through hearings and infractions cases.

It would require that the NCAA provide colleges and students with an opportunity for a formal administrative hearing and an appeal before they issue any sort of sanctions.

YOUNG: OK. So that's the basis of what Congress or members of the House are proposing. But I just want to go back to the scholarship point because we talked about injuries, but schools often take the scholarships away. If the skills aren't what they thought they would be, is it fair to tell a school they can't do that when in fact if somebody is on academic scholarship and they don't perform, they might lose that scholarship?

WOLVERTON: That's a good question. But what they sell when you're being recruited to an institution is that we're going to be here to protect you. We're going to give you every opportunity to graduate. And so the NCAA is all about graduating, and supposedly an educational association. And so if that's what they're standing behind, then a lot of people argue that they should offer these awards in multiple years to allow the student athletes a chance to graduate. So I think many people would argue that it would only be fair that if you're going to promise that, that you deliver on it.

YOUNG: Right. It just makes the recruiting coaches' jobs tougher. They've got to make sure they have the athlete they think they have before they offer the scholarship. Of course the scholarship would stick. And you mentioned the due process portion. One of the co-sponsors of this bill, it's called the NCAA Accountability Act, is Pennsylvania Republican Charlie Dent, and he is not happy with the way the NCAA handled the Penn State/Joe Paterno/Jerry Sandusky scandal. So just briefly tell us, what's he unhappy with, and what does he propose in this new bill?

WOLVERTON: What he's unhappy was pretty obvious. People in Pennsylvania are up in arms about the penalties, the $60 million penalties and the multiyear - many scholarships that were wiped out from Penn State's football program.

YOUNG: So they were upset because programs and students were punished when it was something that was obviously the fault of the school leaders?

WOLVERTON: That's exactly right. But the lawmakers in this press conference last week spun out of that pretty quickly. They didn't want to make this about that particularly. They wanted to make it a broader issue of the athlete welfare and student health and wellness. And you've seen from several fronts there's a big concussion lawsuit right now against the NCAA which is a potentially game-changing lawsuit, which basically says that the NCAA doesn't do enough to protect the health and welfare of students through these policies, that they can't really enact anything that makes and requires institutions to do certain things to make sure athletes are safer from concussions.

YOUNG: There's also an ongoing lawsuit that challenges the way the NCAA makes money by using images of players who don't get any money. So your thoughts. The NCAA - can it survive all of this?

WOLVERTON: Well, that's another big game-changer potentially. You're talking about the Ed O'Bannon lawsuit, which is a former UCLA basketball star who has sued, saying that he deserves a slice of the multimillion dollar revenue the association brings in from the sale of these videogames and other commercial products that's supposedly used his likeness and all these other former athletes' likeness.

WOLVERTON: That suit has gained a lot of momentum of late because current players have been added to it, which means that the potential is there, if it's certified as a class action case, for thousands of current players to have, potentially, a share of the vast television revenue, the billions of dollars in revenue that comes into these member institutions, these colleges. So if that happens, if this case is certified, then it would put a lot of pressure on the NCAA to settle so that they don't, you know, sort of go away.

YOUNG: Well, you have a Republican and a Democratic co-sponsor from Ohio on this new proposal. What do you think its chances are?

WOLVERTON: Robin, honestly, it's the first time we've seen a bill introduced in Congress in sometime. And Harry Reid, the Senate majority leader, has called for hearings over how the NCAA conducts its business. This is really the first time in the past 10 years that something that significant has happened. In 2004, we had hearings over the due process or sort of the fairness over the NCAA in enforcing its rules. And then in 2006, we had a couple powerful lawmakers on the House Ways and Means Committee and the Senate Finance Committee examined whether the NCAA deserved its tax exempt status.

This current bill does not get that tax exempt stuff. It doesn't get that antitrust violations or pay-for-play, which are sort of curious omissions. I think it has potential to, at least, be a conversation starter if not enacted into legislation because there's a lot of momentum around people not happy with the NCAA right now.

YOUNG: Brad Wolverton, he covers the NCAA for The Chronicle of Higher Education. Brad, thanks as always.

WOLVERTON: Thanks very much.


A couple of other stories in the news now. Commuters in the San Francisco Bay Area got a temporary reprieve today when Governor Jerry Brown intervened in a labor dispute. Workers at Bay Area Rapid Transit, or BART, had planned a walkout today, but the governor took advantage of a law that allows him to stop a strike by naming a board of investigators to look at the positions of both labor and management. After the investigation, there can be a cooling off period. Big differences remain though on a lot of key issues, including wages, pensions, health care and worker safety.

Also, The Columbus Dispatch is reporting that thousands of items from Terry Thompson's estate will be up for auction on August 14th. Thompson is the guy who released dozens of exotic animals that he kept at his farm in Zanesville, Ohio. He later committed suicide. Among the items up for auction are a hovercraft that Thomspon built, as well as petting zoo equipment and an Amish buggy. Up next, who is the new Doctor Who? HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.