Politics & Government

NC lawmakers want college sports changes, including protected rights for athletes

College athletes at state-supported schools in North Carolina would receive widespread legal protections, in areas ranging from health care to academics to due process and access to legal representation amid potential NCAA infractions cases, if a bill filed on Thursday in the state Senate becomes law.

Senate Bill 335 is based on a commission’s recommendations. It doesn’t call for college athletes to be paid, as some critics have demanded, but it would change in myriad ways how athletics are governed at state schools.

To become law, though, the bipartisan bill will likely face strong opposition from the University of North Carolina system, which has fought many of its proposals and argued that aspects of the commission’s report would create “a host of unintended consequences,” according to the UNC system’s formal response in February to the report.

In that response, the UNC system cautioned that some of the proposed changes might place North Carolina schools “out of alignment” with NCAA rules and those of their respective athletic conferences. The conflict between the proposed laws and already-established conference and NCAA rules would “create significant legal and regulatory challenges that would take months or years to clarify,” the UNC system argued.

Those who’ve favored college athletics reform in North Carolina, though, say change is long overdue. Among the proponents for reform is Jay Allred, whose daughter suffered a back injury while she was a golfer at ECU. Allred and his daughter, Victoria, maintain that negligence from the coaching and medical staffs at ECU prevented her injury from healing.

Since 2016, Allred has been involved in pushing legislators for reform. He has become an unofficial lobbyist in the movement.

“There’s a lot of people have contacted me about their experiences, but they’re hesitant on coming forward,” said Allred, who lives outside of Winston-Salem, in a phone interview Friday. “They fear losing all their relationships with their teammates. ... Finding out all the other stories (of athlete mistreatment), it’s just amazing, because all of these stories are just little blips.”

The bill, sponsored by Republican Sens. Warren Daniel and Joyce Krawiec, and by Democratic Sen. Don Davis, calls for a new “University Student-Athlete Protection Commission,” which would be charged with oversight and the mission to put into practice much of what the bill proposes.

Under the proposal, the Student-Athlete Protection Commission, which would be an independent nine-member body housed under the UNC System, would be funded by state schools through a 1 percent tax on their ticket revenue from athletic events. The UNC system has warned that such a tax on ticket revenue “may force under-resourced institutions to increase student athletic fees and result in higher ticket prices for the general public.”

Among the bill’s other proposals include:

making illegal the possibility that an institution could derive revenue from an athlete’s name, image and likeness without the athlete’s written consent.

the formalization of health and safety procedures related to athletic trainers, including a law that would require “potential athletic personnel” to disclose previous disciplinary action in previous jobs.

the disclosure to recruits, current athletes and the public the percentage of athletes on each team that is enrolled in a given major.

providing “continuous academic support and monitoring” for freshmen athletes who were admitted to state schools despite not meeting minimum admission requirements or minimum course requirements.

providing athletes with a formal, standardized process to determine answers for questions of ineligibility.

providing athletes the use of a “certified attorney” who could help guide them through eligibility concerns, or questions of potential NCAA violations.

The North Carolina Legislative Commission on the Fair Treatment of Student-Athletes, a bipartisan commission tasked with evaluating problems facing college athletics and ways to address them, made the recommendations that led to the bill. The commission, though, only narrowly voted – by a single, tie-breaking vote from Lt. Gov. Dan Forest – in favor of proposing legislation.

Legal representation

The commission met four times between October and February, and it received testimony from scholars, college administrators and former college athletes, among others, who discussed reform. John Shoop, a former assistant football coach at UNC-Chapel Hill, also provided insight during an appearance before the commission in January.

Shoop was the Tar Heels’ offensive coordinator under former head coach Butch Davis when an NCAA investigation began in 2010. During his appearance before the commission in January, Shoop spoke about how some of the football players who were among the focal points of that investigation lacked an advocate to help them through the NCAA’s investigative process.

UNC’s Devon Ramsay during his playing days in Chapel Hill. AP

Shoop recounted the story of Devon Ramsay, a former UNC football player whom the NCAA first ruled permanently ineligible because he received impermissible academic assistance from a tutor. Ramsay, Shoop testified before the commission, had been told while he was suspended that admitting wrongdoing would be the quickest way for him to resume competition.

Instead, the NCAA banned Ramsay, but later restored his eligibility. Not longer after Ramsay returned to the team, in 2012, he suffered a knee injury that ended his college career. Before the injury, and before the NCAA initially ruled him permanently ineligible, Ramsay was considered a potential professional prospect.

During his public commentary before the commission, Shoop emphasized the need for college athletes to have an advocate, in the form of legal representation, when they’re faced with matters concerning their eligibility. SB 335 would mandate that college athletes have access to such legal representation when faced with the kind of circumstances that Ramsay faced at UNC.

“In America, even the most hardened criminals are entitled to fair representation,” Shoop told the commission. “If college athletes in the state of North Carolina (are) able to have an advocate that serves their individual interests, when in conflict, our state will serve as a model for the entire country on how to treat college athletes with the dignity, respect and fairness they deserve.”

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