The NCAA needs a congressional review

May 23, 2014 

For a “governing body,” the NCAA doesn’t do much governing. Indeed, from scandal after scandal to lax academic oversight to players running amok off the field to escalating, multimillion-dollar salaries for college coaches who also gather big money from apparel companies, the NCAA has been a passive observer.

It’s time for a hard look at the organization’s effectiveness or lack thereof. The NCAA seems to be primarily an agent for college sports, now a multi-billion-dollar enterprise, and it isn’t going to do anything to jeopardize the money sports programs bring in from broadcast deals and the money universities make from various affiliated contracts. Does anyone really believe the NCAA will bring the hammer down, say, on a “big-time” sports program that is a TV draw?

When it does impose sanctions on an athletics program, they don’t amount to much. And though athletes are starting to come forward – and have long before, actually – with stories of how they were exploited by schools with little interest in their academic progress, the NCAA continues to back away from any real reform.

But now, at long last, Congress may be ready to go where universities themselves and certainly the NCAA have feared to tread. Unfortunately, one of the institutions that has gotten the attention of members of Congress is the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, now in the third year of a whirlwind of controversy. The school has been scrutinized for everything from an out-of-control football program where players had improper contact with agents to academic fraud to claims by a former academic adviser that some athletes could not read anywhere close to college level and that counselors were more interested in keeping them eligible for sports than in their academic achievement.

U.S. Reps. Tony Cardenas of California and Elijah Cummings of Maryland noted in a letter to the NCAA that the organization claims as a mission ensuring the “educational experience of the athlete is paramount.” The two referenced an interview in which Mark Emmert, NCAA president, said athletes needed to receive a “real, valid and legitimate education.”

The congressmen, however, have their doubts. Their letter says that instead of that goal, the NCAA “oversees a system in which its member institutions may be requiring student-athletes, particularly in high-revenue sports, to sacrifice their educational goals for the financial interest of college athletics.”

Cardenas and Cummings get pretty blunt, noting that college sports are a $16 billion industry and that Emmert, though the NCAA is a nonprofit, makes $1.6 million a year.

Some of what the two are interested in involves UNC-CH specifically. They seek information from Emmert about how the NCAA ensures there are no fraudulent classes involving athletes, as there were in Chapel Hill, and how the NCAA is making sure the types of problems at UNC-CH are not more widespread.

When members of Congress, with a bully pulpit and investigative resources, start asking questions, they expect answers. It may be that only Congress will be able to set the college athletics empire in order, perhaps with a new level of oversight.

There have been too many scandals and too many problems under the supposed “watch” of the NCAA. The fact that the NCAA has to actually state its belief in academic integrity is itself evidence that the organization hasn’t been getting the job done. If it had, no reassurance would be needed.

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