Roll Call: Latest News on Capitol Hill, Congress, Politics and Elections
August 31, 2015

Senators Blast NCAA, ESPN in Review of College Athletics (Video)

Sen. Jay Rockefeller

Rockefeller criticized ESPN at a hearing on the NCAA and student-athletes last week, saying the network was “undermining our commitment to education.” (CQ Roll Call File Photo)

A century-old debate over the commercialization of college athletics is under renewed scrutiny on Capitol Hill. Lawmakers could face the issue in the coming months, and held little back when the leader of the NCAA testified recently before the Senate Commerce Committee.

Senators hammered NCAA President Mark Emmert on July 9, as questions about student-athlete compensation, graduation rates, health care and sexual assault took center stage.

Chairman Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., kicked off by reminding Emmert of the committee’s jurisdiction over intercollegiate athletics, before taking aim at the NCAA.

“College athletes and athletics are rooted in the notion of amateurism, and the history of that is very interesting and important,” Rockefeller said. “Playing college sports is supposed to be an avocation. There’s a growing perception that college athletics, particularly Division I football and basketball, are not avocations at all. What they really are is highly profitable commercial enterprises.”

Amid a lawsuit that could fundamentally change the structure of college sports and an ongoing review of a March decision giving Northwestern University football players the right to unionize, the NCAA has come under increased pressure to change. Last week marked the second time in three months the issue has reached Capitol Hill.

Emmert defended his organization’s self-governing system, while acknowledging progress still needs to be made.

“This hearing is a useful cattle prod, if you will, to make sure that everyone understands that the world is watching, the U.S. Senate is watching and everyone’s paying attention to what universities are going to do to address these very real and significant issues,” Emmert said. “I think all of those things combined give me some very positive belief that we’re going to wind up in the right place in a matter of months.”

Republican and Democratic senators piled on in the nearly three-hour hearing.

Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., asked Emmert why he should oppose a bill to disband the NCAA if it came before the Senate.

Sens. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., and Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., challenged the NCAA leader on a report released by McCaskill’s office on July 9 that said more than one-fifth of universities give their athletic departments “oversight of sexual violence cases involving student athletes.” McCaskill noted the botched sexual assault investigation of Florida State University quarterback and Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston last year.

“We will never know whether he was guilty or not because nobody ever investigated because of who he was,” McCaskill said. “If you’re a victim and you know your allegation is going to be handled by the athletic department as opposed to any other student on campus who is handled in a different system, why in the world would you think the process was going to be fair?”

Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., a former Stanford University football player, torched the NCAA and college presidents for not doing enough to help “exploited” student-athletes.

“You know more about your playbook … [because] that’s what I was studying at night — that you spend all of that effort, and then your university is not in any way ensuring that you get a degree. To me, this is plain and simple, the dark side of the NCAA, where athletes are being exploited.”

Of the nearly $913 million the NCAA made last year, more than $708 million came from television and marketing rights. Rockefeller criticized not only the NCAA, but also ESPN and other television outlets for undercutting higher education.

“This country is now so soaked in the culture of ESPN, plus I guess a couple of other stations, and watching football, baseball, world soccer all the rest of it. My own view is it’s undermining our values,” Rockefeller said. “I’ll tell you one thing for sure: I think it’s undermining our commitment to education.”

As spending per student-athlete grew twice as fast as spending per student between 2005 and 2010, intercollegiate athletic spending continued to grow, boosted significantly by student subsidies. Yet according to USA Today, only 10 percent of the more than 225 Division I public athletic departments made enough to cover their costs in 2012.

McCaskill and Rockefeller directly questioned the NCAA’s rules and incentive structure in the hearing’s final 90 minutes.

“I don’t sense that you feel like you have any control of the situation, and if you have no control, if you’re merely a monetary pass-through, why should you even exist?” McCaskill said.

“I believe that the system is rigged so that you are separated from the possibilities of getting something done,” Rockefeller later added. “But I don’t think you have the power and I think it’s constructed for that purpose. I’m cynical.”

Citing a 2011 article in The Atlantic by historian and author Taylor Branch, one of the hearing’s six witnesses, Booker likened college athletics to a modern day civil rights issue.

“Where is the urgency that this has been going on in decades in America?” Booker said, later suggesting a follow-up hearing with college presidents is needed. “The Supreme Court, when they said we’re going to integrate schools, they said do it with … all deliberate speed, and it took them a long time to get around to doing the right thing. Well these aren’t just people, these are young people … and we can’t afford to wait for all deliberate speed.”

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