Dear NCAA, the Senate Wants to Ask You a Few Questions

The United States Senate has suddenly expressed an interesting in what is going on in the college sports industry. The Senate’s Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, which is chaired by West Virginia Democrat Jay Rockefeller, postponed a hearing titled “Promoting The Well-Being and Academic Success of College Athletes” that was scheduled for Wednesday but the committee plans to take up the issue after Memorial Day.

But the committee has already sent out a warning to the National Collegiate Athletic Association, the governing body of big time college sports in the United States, that ultimately Congress can make life miserable for the overseers of college sports if the status quo remains reminding them that the group enjoys a tax exempt status.

The Democrats on the committee Claire McCaskill, Jay Rockefeller, and Cory Booker want the NCAA “to exercise better oversight of its member institutions to ensure that they are taking the necessary steps to protect student-athletes from exploitation.

“As college athletics generate growing revenue and publicity with each passing year for colleges and universities, the NCAA, and sponsors, the potential for exploitation and abuse of student-athletes has never been greater,” the Senators wrote. “The need for an organization dedicated to protecting student-athletes is more important than ever.

“We are concerned that insufficient oversight exists to ensure that the NCAA and its member institutions are taking adequate steps to protect student-athletes from exploitation.”

The Senate Committee’s planned hearings is an encouraging step for Ramogi Huma who has spent more than a decade pushing for colleges to improve economical and educational conditions for student-athletes.

“I am pleased that Senator Rockefeller and the Senate Commerce Committee will be examining ways to improve protections and graduation rates for college athletes, said Huma, the President of the National College Players Association. “The NCAA and its universities are treating players’ education, bodies, and brains as collateral damage in their pursuit of revenue. Every dollar that they don’t spend on protecting players goes directly into the pockets of coaches and administrators. This deep conflict of interest among those who run NCAA sports is the root of the problem. I hope that this hearing will generate support for ensuring current and former players are not stuck with sports-related medical bills, policies to minimize traumatic brain injury, ensuring injured players don’t lose their scholarships, and directing a portion of the $1.2 billion in new TV revenue to ensure degree completion.”

The Senate committee may invite Huma along with one-time UCLA basketball star Ed O’Bannon, who is the leader in pushing a class-action lawsuit against the NCAA over revenues generated and not shared with former college players from the use of athletes’ names and images in video games, Mary Willingham, a former specialist for University of North Carolina’s athlete tutoring program who three years ago alerted the Raleigh, North Carolina’s News and Observer about fraudulent classes given to athletes and NCAA President Mark Emmert to the hearing.

Emmert has been trying to defend the NCAA and feels everyone should accept the status quo meaning that “student-athletes” should be happy with their nearly fully paid annual scholarships and restrictions on how much money they can make off campus, generally about $2,000 annually, and be grateful that they have an opportunity to get an education if they so choose if they have time to study along with playing a sport.

Emmett seems to have no problem with the athletes not getting a fair share of the billions of dollars that are being poured into the industry thanks to partnerships with entertainment groups like Disney’s ESPN, Viacom’s CBS, Time Warner’s Turner Sports, Comcast’s NBCUniversal, Rupert Murdoch’s NewsCorp sports division or marketing partners or the seven digit salaries being paid to coaches or bonuses paid to athletic directors if an athlete wins an individual title or a team reaches a tournament.

Emmert recently penned an Op Ed piece for various newspapers claiming that student-athletes are better in the classroom than rank and file students. “In terms of what is most important for intercollegiate athletics, NCAA student-athletes are performing extremely well in the classroom. Graduation rates for student-athletes exceed those of their non-athlete counterparts, and more than 80 percent of NCAA student-athletes earn bachelor’s degrees, well ahead of the national average for college students overall. Whatever improvements we make to college sports, we cannot diminish this record of success for so many young men and women.”

Emmett is pushing the company line of don’t change what works.

But Jack Lengyel isn’t exactly sure if the NCAA should be thinking that way. Lengyel is an old school college sports industry guy. He became the Marshall University head football coach in 1971 after head coach Rick Tolley was killed along with most of the Marshall coaches and players in the crash. Lengyel was the subject of a movie, “We Are Marshall” with Matthew McConaughey starring as Lengyel. After coaching at Marshall, Lengyel went into private business but returned to college sports and spent 18 years as an Athletic Director including 13 years at Navy. He saw the transition from the time where coaches like Woody Hayes were also professors, Hayes taught history at Ohio State University into full time coaches. The separation of the coach from the faculty has been damaging to the industry according to Lengyel.

Coaches make big money now and in many cases a football or basketball coach is the highest paid state employee making more money from a governor.

Lengyel also believes that a hearing room in the United States Senate is not the place to solve college sports problems.

“First thing, we don’t need governmental involvement,’ said Lengyel. The government has got much more important things than college sports. I believe this is not a Senators issue, and that the athletics directors along with the college presidents (chancellors, provosts, board of trustees) should work together in solving problems.”

Lengyel believes every issue dividing the student athletes and the NCAA needs to be settled “bite by bite.”

Lengyel confirmed what St. Joseph’s University Athletic Director Don DeJulia said in October 2010 that the athletic directors were ready to give every student-athlete a $2,000 stipend but the idea was shot down by the people in the Ivy Tower, NCAA member school presidents, chancellors, provosts and trustee members.

“The system broke down years ago,” he said alluding to the fact that college programs needed more money and started looking to TV networks, boosters, alum and marketing partners for the extra cash and that pushed the administrators of sports in a totally different line of work. They didn’t worry about students or athletes just cash.

“The AD became an entrepreneur.”

College sports mimics pro sports in every way possible. Well-heeled alum and corporations buy luxury boxes and club seats. For the corporate community buying tickets is a tax write off. Marketing partners spend millions upon millions of dollars for advertising in stadiums and in media platforms. Television networks invest billions in rights fees for the product.

While Lengyel is technically correct, the NCAA through the college presidents (chancellors, provosts and trustees) should be able to solve the problems which all boil down to money and how to share the money with student-athletes, the Senate has an interest in college sports and educating college players along with taking care of those who might have suffered permanent injuries from participating in games.

Federal legislation has helped put money into the business. College and universities can pool their resources and sell the product as one entity to television networks thanks to the Sports Broadcast Act of 1961. Schools participating in bowl games get tax breaks and incentives. Taking away limited antitrust protection from big time college sports could serious impact the industry’s money flow.

Rockefeller’s committee has put out the word, the NCAA has a tax-exemption. There is no threat Congress plans to remove the status any time soon but just mentioning it could cause some agita for those running the NCAA who want to keep the status quo.

Dear NCAA, the Senate Wants to Ask You a Few Questions by

Tags: