Mark Emmert testifying Wednesday

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A Powerless President?

July 10, 2014

WASHINGTON -- At a U.S. Senate hearing here Wednesday, Mark Emmert, president of the National Collegiate Athletic Association, said he lacks the authority to enact many of the changes he’d like to see in college athletics.

That assertion -- along with tough criticism that Emmert endured from numerous lawmakers during a three-hour grilling -- prompted Senator Claire McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat, to ask, “If you’re merely a monetary pass-through, why should you even exist?”

In a free-ranging discussion with the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, Emmert listed several reforms he would like to see happen, including guaranteed four-year scholarships, scholarships that cover the full cost of attendance, and better health care for athletes. Already, the NCAA has reversed its longstanding rule that barred colleges from offering four-year scholarships.

Emmert said he hoped that the NCAA would soon go a step further than just allowing four-year scholarships and actually mandate them.

His list of reforms was a carbon copy of those recently espoused in open letters by the college presidents of the Pac 12 and Big Ten Conferences. And it’s precisely those presidents, as well as those at smaller institutions, that have the power to make those changes, Emmert said.

“It’s a democratically governed membership organization,” he said. “As such, I and nobody on my staff have a vote.”

Division I colleges are currently attempting to remake the decision-making process to give more control to the 65 largest revenue institutions, Emmert said, as they’re most likely to move forward on reforms. Senator Jay Rockefeller, a West Virginia Democrat and the committee’s chairman, said he didn’t believe that the colleges that make the most money from athletes would be the ones most eager to change.

“I am just very skeptical that the NCAA can ever live up to the lofty mission it constantly touts,” Rockefeller said at the hearing's start.

While Dan Coats, a Republican senator from Indiana, where the NCAA is headquartered, called Emmert “a reformer” and praised his time as president, many of the other senators expressed similar levels of skepticism about the president's comments and the NCAA as a whole.

McCaskill's blunt assessment came as she pressed Emmert to find a way to address how universities handle sexual assaults that involve athletes. A report released by McCaskill’s office Wednesday (see related article here) stated that more than 20 percent of colleges and universities give athletics departments oversight of sexual violence cases. She called the revelation "outrageous."

Emmert said that he was “dismayed” by the data, and that the report would hopefully help spur universities into action.

“You’ve got to fix that right away,” Kelly Ayotte, a New Hampshire Republican, added. “The athletic department is not where you handle these allegations, Dr. Emmert. You’ve got to walk out this door and fix that.”

Emmert said that he would take a closer look at the data, and that the NCAA would attempt to provide guidance on the issue soon. McCaskill, however, said she was unsure Emmert could do anything substantial to address the problem.

“I feel for you,” she said. “Part of me thinks you’ve been captured by those you’re supposed to regulate, but you’re supposed to regulate those you’re captured by. I can’t tell if you’re in charge of them, or if you’re a minion to them.”

Cory Booker, a Democrat of New Jersey, said if college and university presidents are the ones who have the power, then he would like to have another hearing with these “real rule makers.” Rockefeller said the committee would take further action, hinting at launching special investigations and even subpoenaing college presidents.

Booker, who played football for Stanford University, said while he was glad to see the president of the NCAA agreeing with the committee on what problems exist in college athletics, he would like to see more urgency. Many of the issues discussed Wednesday, he said, were issues when he was still a college athlete more than two decades ago, and they will still be issues when the football season starts this fall.

“I want to be very clear: it is exploitation when you have an athlete working 60 to 70 hours a week but not being able to afford the basic necessities,” Booker said, raising his voice. “That exploitation has to be addressed.”

The NCAA’s theoretic model of amateurism repeatedly came under fire at the hearing, with the author and historian Taylor Branch, who wrote a well-known Atlantic article about the NCAA in 2011, calling the idea “a myth.”

Myron Rolle, a former football player at Florida State University who played in the National Football League for three years, said that many universities don’t prioritize an athlete’s education, rendering the term “student-athlete” inaccurate.

Calling himself an anomaly, Rolle, who was a Rhodes Scholar, said the number of hours occupied by games, traveling, workouts, injury treatments, and practices left little time for studying. With so few athletes continuing their sport after college, he said, many students do not have much to show for their work upon graduation.

“Many of my fellow teammates struggled in that environment,” Rolle said. “Some of them sent some of their scholarship money home to help their families. They struggled academically. A lot of them would go through this academic machinery and get spit out, left torn, worn, and asking questions.”

Rockefeller concluded the hearing by returning to Emmert’s apparent lack of control over NCAA institutions.

“I think the system is rigged, so that you are separated from getting something done,” Rockefeller said. “I don’t think you have the power.”

 

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