We need a Bill of Rights to protect college athletes

UNC’s Malik Carney talks about his suspension

Carney is one of 13 North Carolina players facing suspensions after violating NCAA rules for selling shoes.
Up Next
Carney is one of 13 North Carolina players facing suspensions after violating NCAA rules for selling shoes.

What lesson should we learn from this summer’s college football headlines? The answer is simple: the NCAA system places profit before people.

But profit before people doesn’t mean the players profit, as learned by the 13 UNC players currently serving suspensions of up to four games for selling basketball shoes given to them by UNC. Arcane “amateurism” rules prohibiting any profit beyond a scholarship punish players for leveraging their status as the stars of a billion-dollar entertainment industry while millionaire coaches run teams as personal kingdoms, rarely held accountable for abusive or even criminal behavior, as seen this summer.

According to an ESPN report, former Maryland strength coach Rick Court ruled through fear, making underweight players eat until they vomited, throwing things at players, and forcing some to push past their limits during workouts. On May 29th, Court ordered two players to drag 19-year-old Jordan McNair across the field as he was suffering from heat stroke during a conditioning drill.

McNair died on June 13th. The university accepted responsibility, and Court resigned on August 14th. But Court received $315,000 in severance. McNair’s family needed a GoFundMe effort to remain at his hospital bedside. Maryland’s head coach, DJ Durkin, is on leave. Durkin’s colleagues defend him and other coaches against all manner of allegations, sometimes by ignoring or covering up serious charges.

Following a university investigation, Ohio State coach Urban Meyer was suspended for three games — recall that the UNC players are serving four-game suspensions — for years of mishandling domestic abuse allegations against former assistant coach Zach Smith. Ohio State’s summary of findings commends Meyer for “fostering an environment of respect for women,” declaring that Meyer did not “deliberately lie” about his knowledge of domestic violence accusations against Smith. But nobody knows if Meyer deliberately lied because an assistant admitted to helping him delete his old text messages the day before investigators seized his phone.

Meyer’s suspension is effectively a slap on the wrist calculated to signal regret to the university’s critics. How do we know it’s an empty gesture? In 2011, five Buckeye players received five-game suspensions from the NCAA for the heinous crime of trading their autographs for tattoos and cash. Athletic departments and the NCAA value preserving their uniquely twisted version of amateurism more than they do policing their own coaches.

Ohio State did not launch an investigation or discipline Zach Smith until media discovered and publicized his history of abuse against his ex-wife, Courtney. Maryland planned to retain Court and Durkin until an anonymous group of players spoke to ESPN about the program’s toxic culture. How many cases have there been where abused players or others haven’t seen justice because of a successful cover-up? Nobody knows, but the General Assembly has a chance to ensure that it won’t happen in North Carolina.

In June, the N.C. General Assembly passed a bill establishing the Legislative Commission on the Fair Treatment of College Student-Athletes in response to determined lobbying from the parents of maltreated athletes. The commission, which will recommend legislation to protect collegiate athletes in North Carolina, should consider drafting an athlete’s Bill of Rights.

First on the list needs to be the preservation of a physically safe, abuse-free environment, with clearly defined oversight and enforcement mechanisms. The commission should also study the dark origins of the NCAA’s exploitative amateurism model — the NCAA created the term “student-athlete” in the 1950s in order to escape worker’s compensation claims — and enshrine the right to sell one’s own property at market value, as UNC’s Chazz Surratt and his teammates did.

While the changes wouldn’t take effect overnight, the state of North Carolina must take steps to protect its athletes from a system designed to protect and enrich everyone but them before tragedy strikes closer to home.

J. Davis Winkie played football at Vanderbilt and is a PhD student in history at UNC-Chapel Hill.