'A Day of Reckoning'

At a panel on the state of college athletics, a former Congressman says a presidential commission on college sports is all but inevitable.

October 22, 2014
Tom McMillen

A forum sponsored by the Big 12 Conference on Tuesday was billed as a discussion about whether college athletes should be treated as employees. Instead, it foretold a coming apocalypse to the status quo of college sports.

“You’re going to be facing a day of reckoning,” Tom McMillen, a retired professional basketball player and former member of Congress, warned the gathering of college sports professionals. And that reckoning, he said, is coming sooner rather than later.

McMillen, who now serves on the board of directors of the National Foundation on Fitness, Sports and Nutrition, was speaking on a panel during the one-day conference, called "The State of College Athletics Forum.” The reckoning, he said, would come in the form of Congress and the White House establishing a presidential commission on college sports, similar to the Amateur Sports Act of 1978 that established the United States Olympic Committee and provided legal protections to athletes. (An essay on Inside Higher Ed last month offered such a proposal.)

Rep. Jim Moran, a Virginia Democrat, will introduce legislation during the lame-duck session to establish the commission, McMillen said.

U.S. Sen. Jay Rockefeller, a West Virginia Democrat and chairman of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, had previously hinted at Congressional intervention during a Senate hearing in July.

At the time, Mark Emmert, president of the National Collegiate Athletic Association, said he lacked the authority to enact many of the changes he and lawmakers would like to see in college athletics, as the power really belongs to the member institutions. That assertion prompted Senator Claire McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat, to ask, “If you’re merely a monetary pass-through, why should you even exist?”

It’s a point McMillen brought up Tuesday as well.

“What’s happened in colleges sports is that nobody is in charge,” he said. “Everybody is in charge, so nobody is really in charge. Quite frankly I’m looking for a benevolent dictator in college sports.”

The dictator would need to exist outside of the NCAA and its member colleges, McMillen said, a comment that received little pushback from the rest of the panel, which included three current and former college athletics directors. Lisa Love, the former athletics director for Arizona State University, said some colleges would welcome a Congressional review as “there’s so much positive under wraps" that could be brought into the open.

Chris Plonsky, women’s athletics director at the University of Texas at Austin, said many colleges may even “embrace” a nonpartisan enforcement body that had more regulatory teeth than the NCAA. Currently, many colleges are too worried to “do the right thing” out of fear that other colleges would not follow suit, she said, leaving them at a competitive disadvantage. An outside agency could level the playing field.

“You have a membership starving for fairness,” Plonsky said. “They are anxious for that to happen.”

Len Elmore, a former professional basketball player and a member of the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics, said he supported the idea of an independent body overseeing college sports, but questioned how effective Congressional intervention could be, particularly when confronted with lobbying efforts.

Indeed, the NCAA has already ramped up its spending on lobbying expenses. According to OpenSecrets.org, the association has so far spent more than $240,000 in lobbying this year. In 2013, the association spent $160,000 in total.

Elmore said such a body would also need to be given limited protection from antitrust laws so it could experiment with solutions to issues like paying an athlete for the use of his or likeness or providing more medical expenses. “You have to give a central agency a shield to protect them from death by a thousands cuts of litigation,” he said, referencing the multitude of lawsuits in which the NCAA is currently embroiled. 

McMillen, too, said he was against using litigation as a means of reform, saying “all this litigation in the public eye tarnishes the good work" that college sports programs do actually accomplish.

“I wish self-reform would work,” he added. “I wish that college sports could clean itself up, but they’ve already had so many chances to do so. Inexorable change is coming.”


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