WASHINGTON -- Officials from the National Collegiate Athletic Association last week had an unusually long opportunity to brag; with several changes to eligibility standards and scholarship rules making headlines all week long, words like "historic," "unprecedented" and "profound" became standard rhetoric.
Here's hoping they enjoyed it, because they're about to go back on the defensive.
The raging debate over anything and everything involving college sports (conference realignment, athlete welfare, rules violations, contract revenue ... the list goes on) very nearly made it to Congress on Tuesday. It was not surprising that at a "roundtable discussion" that its sponsors said would examine "the impacts of back-room deals, payoffs, and scandals in American collegiate athletics," the athletes, player advocates, parents and professors on the panels were critical of the NCAA. Very critical.
"I have this innate understanding of the NCAA and I think it is one of the most vicious, most ruthless organizations ever created," said Rep. Bobby L. Rush of Illinois, the Democrat who organized Tuesday's event. Rush went on to compare the NCAA to the Mafia, saying the association "would make the mob look like choir girls and boys." (In a statement Tuesday night, Bob Williams, NCAA vice president of communications, said, "Congressman Rush obviously doesn't know the NCAA. The NCAA and its member institutions provide over $2 billion per year in scholarships, financial assistance an academic support to student-athletes.... second only to the federal government. Student-athlete success is our mission.")
Although Rep. John Conyers of Michigan, the top Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, requested last week that the committee hold hearings on these and other "antitrust and due process issues" in college sports, the roundtable event in the new Capitol Visitor Center was the best he could manage -- for now.
"I think the American people are going to demand change, and I know that Congress is," Rush said. "It might not be this year, it might not be next year, but ultimately we are going to get into this."
Despite the NCAA's fairly significant shift last week in allowing conferences to award an additional $2,000 in scholarship funds to help athletes cover cost-of-living expenses, and to allow institutions to award multiyear scholarships, the panelists had nary a kind word for the association -- or for its membership.
"Two thousand dollars -- I have no idea where they came up with that number. They have not explained that at all," said Ramogi Huma, president of the National College Players Association. Research by Huma and a fellow panelist, Ellen Staurowsky, a Drexel University professor of sports management, has found that the gap between what full athletic scholarships cover and the actual cost of attending college averages $3,500. (Other estimates say the gap approaches $11,000 at some institutions.) The same report found that top football and men's basketball players generate for their programs $121,000 and $265,000, respectively, per year. "We've been fighting for a scholarship increase for over 10 years, and this is the first increase that's happened in 60 years. So this is a step in the right direction. Is it enough? No."
"We are putting these players in a position to fail," said Josh Luchs, a former National Football League agent who admitted to ignoring NCAA rules and profiting from the desperation of college athletes in his old days as a recruiter, by promising benefits like cash and cars. "When we know that the amount of the shortfall is in excess of $3,000, it's just like throwing a guy on a 10-story burning building a three-story ladder. It makes no sense."
The panelists argued that "amateurism" -- the exemption that the NCAA says allows it to not pay athletes, use their images without permission, limit scholarships and prohibit them from retaining lawyers or agents -- is bogus and long outdated. Staurowsky, who is also a former college athlete, coach and athletics director, noted that the same person who invented the term also called it "an economic camouflage for monopoly practice."
The NCAA is also facing a lawsuit in which several former athletes charge the association with exploiting their "likeness," and withholding hundreds of millions of dollars from them. But as students, athletes often either don't recognize they too should profit when their name or image is used on apparel or in video games, or think it's too cool to care, two professional basketball players said Tuesday.
Shane Battier, a Memphis Grizzlies forward, described how his days of classes, studying and basketball practice at Duke University stretched from 6:30 a.m. until midnight. There was no time to work for some extra cash. But others would profit -- when he made it to national championships, it was only a matter of time before his image started showing up in video games.
"As a kid growing up, you dream about this, so at first you think, 'This is so cool.' And then you realize, 'Wow, I have no say in this at all,' " Battier said. "And that's your first lesson in business as a scholarship athlete."
The Delta Cost Project on Postsecondary Education Costs, Productivity and Accountability announced last week that in the coming years, the five biggest conferences will receive $14 billion from their television contracts. Those are the conferences that, should they decide to do so, will have the easiest time awarding bigger scholarships. But there are other options too, Huma said. For instance, the millions of dollars handed over to institutions each year as a reward for making a BCS bowl game or the Division I men's basketball tournament could be redirected to athletes, he said.
The panelists also talked a great deal about the NCAA's right not only to revoke athletes' scholarships when they get injured, but to refuse to cover the medical bills. "The NCAA is sounding off about how it's going to bring forward comprehensive reform. Not one word about players' medical expenses, and it's unacceptable," Huma said. "This isn't high school sports. This isn't little league. These are schools with a lot of means."
Valerie Hardrick told the story of her son Kyle, a former basketball player at the University of Oklahoma whose scholarship wasn't renewed, she said. With his family struggling to pay for medical treatment on his knee, Kyle is in limbo: he's been accepted to a junior college in Kansas, but can't play until Oklahoma submits a medical hardship waiver. She said it has refused to do. (In a statement Tuesday night, Oklahoma said it could not discuss details of the case under student privacy guidelines, but that it has told the Hardricks and their lawyers that the university would "facilitate the opportunity" for them to make a case for the waiver. "We have acted responsibly in this matter," the statement said.)
The new NCAA rules allow colleges to offer multi-year scholarships, but don't require them to do so.
Staurowsky said the NCAA is following a "recipe for exploitation."
"I think there needs to be an awakening to how all of these rules and regulations converge in a way that creates a tremendous inequality in terms of the athletes themselves," she said. "We talk so often about athletes being the center of all this. Well, make them the center of all this."