Senate Committee Has Tough Questions for NCAA Leader

July 10, 2014

Less than a month after testifying in a federal antitrust case challenging his organization, Mark Emmert, president of the National Collegiate Athletic Association, faced tough questions on Wednesday from U.S. senators about the state of big-time college sports.

Over several hours a dozen members of the Senate’s commerce committee and other witnesses highlighted the NCAA’s shortcomings in protecting athletes from concussion and other injuries, and questioned why colleges have resisted providing players with due-process protections, better scholarships, more time off from their sport, and improved health coverage.

Senators grilled the NCAA leader over findings from a survey, led by one of the committee’s members, showing that more than 20 percent of major universities allow their athletics departments to investigate sexual-assault cases involving athletes.

Mr. Emmert said he had just learned of the survey report, released on Wednesday by Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Democrat from Missouri, but he promised to look into it.

He agreed that time demands on athletes are "far too great" and said he would like to see colleges provide "scholarships for life" and better health benefits. "No one should have to pay for an injury they suffered while they were a student-athlete," he said.

But he deflected much of the criticism of college sports, saying that the vast majority of NCAA athletes are better students than are their nonathlete peers and that research shows that players often get better jobs and make more money than other students. He also pointed to coming changes in the NCAA’s top division that are expected to give the wealthiest conferences more opportunities to help athletes.

Sen. Jay Rockefeller, a Democrat from West Virginia and the committee’s chair, opened the hearing by describing how money and power had corrupted big-time college sports, rewarding coaches and top athletics officials with generous pay packages but leaving some players with a meaningless education.

"Athletics are meant to serve schools and their public duty to educate students," Mr. Rockefeller said, "not the other way around."

‘Torn, Worn, No Idea of Their Purpose’

In addition to Mr. Emmert, the senators heard from two former football players—Myron Rolle, a Florida State University standout who was also a Rhodes Scholar, and Devon Ramsay, a University of North Carolina player who was declared ineligible by the NCAA during an academic scandal, a decision that was later overturned.

The players provided some of the most compelling testimony, with Mr. Rolle describing how many of his teammates struggled academically. They "go through this machinery," he said, "left torn, worn, no idea of their purpose."

Mr. Ramsay said the NCAA was more concerned with "signage and profit margins" than protecting the health and well-being of players. If the association truly cared about students, he said, it would require all athletes to complete an internship to help ease their transition into the work world.

Taylor Branch, the civil-rights historian whose 2011 article in The Atlantic, "The Shame of College Sports," crystalized many of the concerns in intercollegiate athletics, also testified. Calling the association a cartel that governs by fiat, he lamented that the NCAA "shackles" the most vital talent—the players—by excluding them from decisions and preventing them from receiving a share of all the television revenue that has come into the game.

NCAA officials, he said, obscure differences between commercialized sports and the academic mission, and "strip rights from athletes uniquely as a class."

He urged Mr. Emmert to give athletes more of a voice in college sports, making them "true citizens rather than glorified vassals."

‘Very Into This Subject’

Mr. Emmert, who appeared relaxed and nonconfrontational, emphasized that it is not his job to come up with NCAA policies and rules. That, he said, is largely the responsibility of college leaders.

Senator Rockefeller, a longtime supporter of college sports who is not running for re-election, said he would like to haul college presidents in to testify, reminding the NCAA leader that it is the commerce committee’s job to oversee sports.

"We have the ability to subpoena. We have a special investigative unit," he said. "We are very into this subject."

Mr. Rockefeller’s questions were among the toughest, and he injected comments throughout the hearing suggesting that he had become more of a skeptic than a supporter. He asked Mr. Emmert to justify an email uncovered in a concussion lawsuit in which an NCAA official said it was not the association’s responsibility to protect athletes.

"I will not quibble about the language," Mr. Emmert said. "It was a terrible choice of words created by legal counsel to make a legal argument."

Two other senators took turns questioning the NCAA leader about the effectiveness and relevancy of his organization.

Sen. Dean Heller, a Republican from Nevada, asked Mr. Emmert to justify the work of the association, saying that, if someone introduced a bill to disband the NCAA, "give me the reasons why I shouldn’t vote for that bill."

Senator McCaskill, who has been investigating campus sexual-assault responses and leading discussions on the issue, asked Mr. Emmert about his authority.

"I can’t tell whether you are in charge or whether you’re a minion," she said.

She also questioned the role of the association: "If you’re just a monetary pass-through, why should you exist?"

One-Dimensional Lives

But the most impassioned criticism may have come from Sen. Cory Booker, a Democrat from New Jersey who played football at Stanford University more than 20 years ago.

He described how many athletes come from poor families that rely on them to share a portion of their scholarship money, and expressed concern that the demands on players’ time prevent them from taking outside jobs.

Too many players leave school without degrees, he said. Too many lack the basic necessities, including adequate food and spending money. And far too many players lead one-dimensional lives.

“They’re putting in upwards of 60 to 70 hours a week,” he said. “That's exploitation of athletes.”

As the hearing neared its third hour, Mr. Rockefeller invited final comments from the witnesses.

Mr. Branch, who was wearing a tie that depicted the Founding Fathers, said he saw the NCAA’s core problem as a civil-rights issue.

He questioned whether the five wealthiest leagues, which are expected to gain increasing power in the NCAA’s new governance structure, should be the ones deciding athletes’ fates.

"Big schools," he said, "won’t do anything more than be driven by the market."

Richard M. Southall, a professor at the University of South Carolina at Columbia and director of the College Sport Research Institute, urged the senators to take a more informed look at the data, including his research into athletes’ graduation rates.

Mr. Rockefeller said he was encouraged that the NCAA was making some progress, but was hopeful that he could spur the association to do more.

"Of course progress is being made," he said. "Has it been enough to keep up with what needs to be done? Absolutely not."

Mr. Emmert, meanwhile, sat quietly. He had nothing more to say.