The sports you see played under the bright lights of the biggest stages make up just a fraction of a fraction of athletic competition in the United States.
Instead of being played in massive arenas, most American sports are staged on playgrounds and driveways. The actors in this drama are not highly-paid superstars, but children—fueled only by dreams.
In the age of 24-hour sports coverage, the demand for collegiate athletics has never been higher. The children playing these games are far from your average American—they are elite, highly-specialized athletes between the ages of 18 and 22, a small percentage of whom will go on to become millionaires at the professional level. Today, the NCAA’s Division I is comprised of nearly 350 universities with 170,000 athletes competing on 6,000 teams.
Injecting billions of dollars into these playground games has created a monster that won’t stop growing. Massive television contracts—mainly for football—have made collegiate athletics a significant revenue generator for universities. In the process, it has made the already-blurry line between amateurism and professionalism all the more complicated.
So complicated, in fact, that Congress wants to get involved.
There are three active bills in the House of Representatives aimed at reforming collegiate athletics. All of them have been introduced on the House floor within the last 14 months and currently sit in various committees and subcommittees.
The oldest of the three bills, the NCAA Act, was proposed Aug. 1, 2013 by Rep. Charlie Dent (R-Pa.). Dent first dealt with the NCAA when Pennsylvania’s congressional delegation was pleading to recover portions of the $60 million fine levied against Penn State in the aftermath of the Jerry Sandusky scandal. The representative of the Keystone State's 15th district did not hesitate to openly criticize college athletics’ governing body for its handling of recent investigations into violations by Penn State, Miami and North Carolina. One of his bill’s four primary tenets is guaranteeing due process for athletes involved in investigations by their school or the NCAA.
Dent argued that his bill was not one primarily concerned with collegiate athletics, but with the NCAA’s commitment to higher education.
“I question their commitment to scholarship,” said Dent, who is currently serving his fifth term as a U.S. Congressman.
The biggest piece of Dent’s legislation concerns the length of collegiate athletic scholarships. Most NCAA scholarships are one-year agreements that are renewable for the duration of a student-athlete’s eligibility.
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Dent believes that every collegiate scholarship should be guaranteed for four years up front, and argues that it would prevent student-athletes from losing their scholarships due to poor performance on the playing field.
“[A school can] can take that scholarship away, not based on academic performance or behavioral issues, but based on your not being as good an athlete as maybe they thought,” Dent said. “Frankly, it’s dismaying to me that university presidents reportedly concerned about the education of their students would not want four-year scholarships.”
Four-year scholarships do exist in NCAA athletics, but only a handful of schools use them. Ohio State has long been one of the most prominent proponents of four-year scholarships but offers just 71 full-term scholarships—the remainder are one-year renewable. Arizona State, Florida and Florida State are among those offering four-year deals as well.
Scholarship length has been a hot-button issue for institutions since 2012, when the NCAA decided to allow them. It is an issue that has picked up steam as of late, with South Carolina and Southern California both adding four-year scholarships since June.
Duke does not offer four-year scholarships to student-athletes, but it has been a long-standing practice by the University’s athletic department to renew an athlete’s scholarship every year. Cases of non-renewal have exclusively stemmed from misconduct by the student-athlete, whether criminal or academic, Jon Jackson, Duke’s senior associate athletic director for external affairs, wrote in an email. Duke athletes whose careers are prematurely ended by injury are allowed to keep their scholarships.
Dent’s legislation ties the issue of renewable scholarships into the prevalence of concussions in contact sports. The NCAA Act would require all collegiate athletes to undergo baseline concussion testing at the beginning of every season.
“The reason I wanted to tie the concussion issue to the scholarship issue is because if a guy takes a real bang on the head playing football, he’s going to be hesitant to report that injury to his coaches out of the fear that he’s going to lose his scholarship,” Dent said.
Once an afterthought decades ago, baseline concussion testing is now relatively commonplace throughout the landscape of collegiate athletics. Duke conducts baseline concussion testing for all sports. Additionally, athletes playing contact sports undergo neuropsychology testing administered by Deborah Attix, director of Duke Clinical Neuropsychology.
Due process, scholarship length and concussion testing are also the three primary focuses of the Collegiate Student-Athlete Protection Act, proposed Nov. 20, 2013 by Rep. Tony Cardenas (D-Ca.). The legislation provides a detailed explanation of what schools must provide for student-athletes who are dismissed from teams for non-disciplinary reasons or are injured and cannot compete—athletically-related student aid for up to five years or the completion of their undergraduate degree, whichever comes first.
“This isn’t about revenue sports. This isn’t about football and basketball only,” said Paul Kincaid, who serves as Cardenas’ press secretary. “It’s about all the sports, making sure that what the NCAA promises—that 99 percent of the kids are going to go pro in something else—that they legitimately have a chance to go pro in something else.”
Kincaid added that Cardenas views an athletic scholarship as a contract between a coach and a player—if the player puts forth the full effort, he should be able to earn his college degree.
“A one-year grant-in-aid does not fulfill that contract—plain and simple,” Kincaid said. “Whether it’s an implicit contract or an explicit contract—it’s not fulfilled by a one-year grant-in-aid.”
Each bill has its own additional stipulations as well. The NCAA Act allows institutions to pay stipends to athletes to cover the full cost of attending school. The Collegiate Student-Athlete Protection Act would require schools to process a student-athlete’s transfer application within seven days.
The third, and most recent, piece of legislation to be introduced was the Standard of Collegiate Oversight of Revenues and Expenditures Act (SCORE Act), which was introduced by Rep. David Price (D-N.C.) July 14. The bill would require transparent financial reporting by all schools—public and private—as well as the NCAA, conferences, bowl games and the new College Football Playoff. The U.S. Department of Education would then be able to make available detailed, sport-by-sport revenue and expense data each year.
Private institutions like Duke are forced to report budgetary figures every year under the Equity in Athletics Disclosure Act. The NCAA makes revenues and expenditures for each school’s teams publicly available every year but receives additional information it keeps private. Price’s bill aims to make public reporting more detailed and easier to analyze.
Paul Haagen, co-director of Duke’s Center for Sports Law and Policy and professor of law, said that collecting comprehensive budgetary data from private institutions would be difficult due to a lack of standard accounting practices. He added that the passage of Price’s bill would likely be met with resistance by presidents and athletic directors at private schools.
“Do I think schools will resist it because in part they’re doing things they don’t want the public to know about? Yes, I think that’s true," Haagen said.
Price has served as professor of public policy and political science at Duke’s Sanford School of Public Policy since 1973. He took leave in 1986 to run his first congressional campaign and taught again from 1995-96 during a stint in which he had lost his congressional seat. Price has served a total of 13 terms in Congress and declined multiple requests for comment.
Congressmen aren’t the only policymakers that have dealt with college athletics in the past year. Three major decisions have significantly altered the topography of the college sports landscape.
In March, the National Labor Relations Board granted a request by the Northwestern football team to unionize. The ruling is still under appeal by the NCAA and Northwestern, but if upheld would make football players Northwestern employees. Five months later, on Aug. 7, the NCAA voted to give its five biggest conferences—the ACC, Big 12, Big Ten, Pac-12 and SEC—autonomy to create its own set of policies. The next day, former UCLA basketball player Ed O’Bannon won a class action lawsuit against the NCAA arguing that upon graduation, college athletes should be entitled to some financial compensation for the NCAA’s commercial use of his or her image.
These three rulings have effectively defined the NCAA’s role in the sporting world as an institution with athletes that aren’t quite professional but are so far from being amateurs.
Autonomy poses a potentially ground-breaking shakeup to the status quo, giving the member institutions of the nation’s five biggest conferences the ability to pass their own legislation independent of the rest of Division I. As was expected, a number of the conferences’ primary concerns align themselves with the provisions in Cardenas and Dent’s legislation.
The Big Ten announced Oct. 8 that all of its institutions would grant four-year scholarships and that it will allow some athletes who leave school to use their scholarships to complete their degrees at a later date. Scholarship protections—as well as the provision of full cost of attendance—were among the priorities submitted to the NCAA by the ACC.
Even as institutions and conferences adapt, Congress is still not convinced that autonomy will solve these issues.
“The voluntary adoption of these standards by conferences or schools does not supersede the need for legislation,” Kincaid said. “They’ve had the opportunity to voluntarily make these changes for years.”
Legislative proposals to fix NCAA athletics are coming at a time when Washington is in a state of complete political gridlock. As of Oct. 14, the 113th U.S. Congress had proposed 10,171 pieces of legislation since it was sworn in in 2012. Just 184 bills—less than 2 percent—became laws.
“It’s bad. It’s worse than it’s been in a long time,” said John Harwood, Trinity '78 and national political correspondent for CNBC and the New York Times. “The only way to break it is when one side—at least temporarily—can muster the type of political strength in numbers to impose their political agenda.”
The root of this gridlock is partisan politics, which has brought progress in Washington to a virtual standstill. But sports seems to be one of the only things that Democrats and Republicans in Congress can agree on—two of the three proposed bills are bipartisan, a rarity in today's political climate.
With America still recovering from its most recent economic recession, facing major issues with health care and education and a new terror threat brewing in the Middle East, Dent scoffed at the idea that policy-related legislation aimed at NCAA reform was a waste of Congress’s time.
“I can walk and chew gum at the same time,” he said.
So why is Congress spending its time—and taxpayer dollars—debating college sports?
Part of the answer may come from the interest of each representative’s constituencies. Dent’s district in Central Pennsylvania is dense with Penn State football fans and sits less than 150 miles from State College. Nestled in the San Fernando Valley, Cardenas’ California 29th district is a stone’s throw from USC and UCLA. Price’s congressional district used to contain Duke and still has North Carolina and N.C. State.
Haagen noted that with two-year terms, these Congressmen are in a constant state of campaigning for their next election. The combination of hot-button issues and constant media coverage provides the perfect soapbox for some free airtime.
“If your constituents are getting fed up with what they think are excessive coaches' salaries or they’re getting agitated about concussions, this is an opportunity,” Haagen said. “Because it’s being discussed now, you can probably get on television.”
But it would be overly simplistic to write off three pieces of legislation with pure cynicism. Haagen was quick to point out the ways in which the 24-hour news cycle has helped to fuel positive conversations that transcend athletics.
“Sports is one of the places in society where a whole series of moral and legal issues get debated by members of the general public,” he said. “You don’t get very expansive discussion of antitrust by members of the public except for in connection to the NFL lockout. Arguably, we got more debate about race out of Donald Sterling than we got out of Ferguson.”
Whether or not any of the three bills comes to a vote before the next Congress is sworn in this January, a number of their demands could be met by most—if not all—Division I institutions in the coming years. As future debates concerning student-athlete rights continue to materialize, the threat of congressional oversight will hang like a symbolic cloud over the NCAA.