Senate Committee Plans Hearing on Welfare of NCAA Athletes

May 07, 2014

Some of the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s toughest critics have been invited to testify next week before the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, The Chronicle has learned.

Aides to the committee’s chairman, John D. Rockefeller IV, a Democrat from West Virginia, have extended invitations to Ed O’Bannon, a former University of California at Los Angeles basketball star and the lead plaintiff in a federal antitrust lawsuit against the NCAA, and Mary C. Willingham, a former reading specialist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who stepped down this week amid a long-running scandal over academic problems in the athletic department.

Both have agreed to testify at the hearing, which they said was scheduled for Wednesday, May 14.

Aides to Mr. Rockefeller would not confirm the hearing. But they told Ms. Willingham that they also planned to invite Mark Emmert, the NCAA’s president, and two other leading NCAA critics: Ramogi Huma, head of an effort to unionize football players at Northwestern University, and Taylor Branch, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author who has written critically of the association. (Neither Mr. Huma nor Mr. Branch responded to requests for comment. The NCAA could not immediately be reached.)

The hearing—which is to focus on the welfare of NCAA athletes, the aides told Ms. Willingham—would be the second in two weeks in Congress related to big-time college sports. On Thursday, Rep. John P. Kline Jr., a Republican from Minnesota and chairman of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, plans to hold a hearing on a recent decision by a regional director of the National Labor Relations Board giving football players at Northwestern the right to unionize.

The moves come amid unprecedented scrutiny of the NCAA. Next month, Mr. O’Bannon’s case is set to go to trial in federal court in California. He and his fellow plaintiffs, who include current athletes, have argued that the NCAA illegally restrains them from trading on their images and likenesses. The NCAA has denied the allegations and vowed to fight the case to the Supreme Court.

The NCAA also faces high-profile lawsuits over concussions and limitations on its scholarships.

Over the past decade, Congress has made several inquiries into the NCAA. In 2006 the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee sent the association a sharply worded letter, asking it to justify its tax-exempt status. The letter followed months of interviews with more than a dozen college officials. The same year the Senate Finance Committee examined whether the NCAA was abusing its tax exemption. None of the inquiries led to changes.