With several United States senators at a hearing Wednesday questioning whether the NCAA and its member schools care about the well-being of college athletes, NCAA President Mark Emmert pledged to go back to his association and push for many of the reforms they seek.
“I think this hearing is a useful cattle prod that we know the world is watching,” Emmert said at a hearing of the Senate Commerce, Science & Transportation Committee.
The NCAA and its nearly 1,100 member colleges and universities are in a time of tumult.
Court cases continue concerning whether athletes should get a piece of the fast-growing revenues. Athletes are trying to unionize at Northwestern University. And concern is growing that athletes are not getting a quality education – as evidenced by the academic fraud at UNC-Chapel Hill.
Academic fraud was mentioned during the hearing, but no specific cases were discussed. UNC still became a part of the hearing; one of the witnesses was Devon Ramsay, a former football player the NCAA wrongly declared academically ineligible after he accepted some editing suggestions from a tutor on a three-page paper.
The declaration cost Ramsay much of the 2010 season, and he suffered what ultimately turned out to be a career-ending injury early in the following season.
Ramsay told senators how unfair the process was. He was not told he was under suspicion when he met with investigators and received the penalty even though UNC’s honor court wouldn’t take up the case due to a lack of evidence. He was not told he could have legal representation when he met with investigators.
“After coming to the realization that UNC was more concerned with penalties and the loss of scholarships than protecting one of its own, my mother and I set out to find lawyers that would hopefully have my best interests at heart,” Ramsay said.
All turned him down until Robert Orr, a former N.C. Supreme Court justice, took the case and persuaded the NCAA to overturn its ruling.
Defending the system
Emmert said he agrees with senators that more needs to be done to make sure athletes get access to quality educations and do not have to pay any health care costs associated with injuries suffered during competition. There are at least two bills in the U.S. House that address some of those issues.
He also agreed with Ramsay that athletes need more due-process protection when they are accused of NCAA violations.
But Emmert disputed the opinion repeatedly stated by Sen. Jay Rockefeller, a West Virginia Democrat, that the current system for operating and overseeing college sports acts more like a cartel that protects the money-making opportunities of the NCAA and member schools at the expense of the athletes who perform in exchange for an athletic scholarship.
“College sports are serving student athletes very, very well for the most part,” Emmert said.
The most compelling evidence provided to the contrary came from Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat.
The NCAA allows member schools to limit the length of athletic scholarships to one year, which means athletes who fall out of favor with a coach or are injured and can’t play run the risk of losing their scholarship in the midst of their college education. Until three years ago, the NCAA prohibited schools from offering longer-term scholarships.
McCaskill released NCAA records showing that a majority of member schools sought to keep the one-year scholarship limit in place in a membership vote in 2012 that fell just short of the 62.5 percent majority needed. Among the schools who did not want multi-year scholarships were the University of Alabama and the University of Texas, McCaskill’s records indicated.
“I guess my question to you, Dr. Emmert, is why wasn’t this made public at the time (of the vote), because I think most of these universities would be publicly embarrassed,” she said.
East Carolina University and many smaller North Carolina colleges supported one-year scholarships, including Elon University and UNC-Wilmington. The Atlantic Coast Conference supported four-year scholarships, as did N.C. State University, Duke and Wake Forest. UNC did not vote.
Emmert said schools should commit to keeping athletes on scholarship until they graduate, regardless of whether they remain on the team.
McCaskill drew more concern when she cited to the committee a survey her office conducted. It found that more than 20 percent of 440 four-year colleges surveyed were allowing athletic departments to handle sexual assault allegations against their athletes. Emmert said that shouldn’t be happening.
“I think your data is shining a light on a very important phenomenon that I think most of the members are going to be surprised exists,” he said.
Some senators, mostly Republicans, asked Emmert questions that gave him the opportunity to speak positively of the NCAA’s handling of college athletics. They also suggested in their questioning that the effort to unionize athletes would be harmful to college athletics programs, particularly athletes in sports that do not make money.
At the end, Rockefeller, who is retiring, said he worried the hearing served as little more than an airing of long-standing issues that were unlikely to draw significant reform. He and Sen. Cory Booker, a New Jersey Democrat, suggested another hearing should be held with presidents of some of the major Division I universities taking questions.
“To me, it’s been in essence an important hearing, but not one which points to progress,” Rockefeller said.
Renee Schoof of McClatchy’s Washington Bureau contributed.