Congress Ratchets Up Pressure on Besieged NCAA—and UNC

The Hall of Champions at the NCAA headquarters in Indianapolis Photograph by Michael Conroy/AP Photo

Pick your unpleasant metaphor for the current state of the National Collegiate Athletic Association. The $16 billion-a-year college sports business is stuck between several rocks and hard places. NCAA officials are under incendiary bombardment from antitrust lawsuits, the player-unionization drive, and the liability-fraught anxiety about head injuries. The water level is rising and hurricane-force winds threaten to knock down the organization’s headquarters building in Indianapolis. And now Democrats in Congress are piling on.

Representative Elijah Cummings of Maryland, ranking member of the House Committee on Oversight & Government Reform, and Representative Tony Cardenas of California, a longtime advocate for better education of top college athletes, sent a long, thorough letter to NCAA President Mark Emmert demanding information about the supervision of classroom preparation of the student-athletes.

“The onerous demands of NCAA athletic competition cause many student-athletes to make great sacrifices with respect to their education,” the congressmen wrote in their letter on Tuesday, “while the schools and the NCAA reap huge financial windfalls. Given the huge amounts of money received by the NCAA and its member institutions, we believe you have a solemn obligation to support the academic goals of students just as vigorously as their goals on the track, court, or field.” (That last bit notwithstanding, the controversy swirling around NCAA Inc. concerns Division I football and basketball competition—the so-called “revenue sports” that generate the television contracts, licensing deals, ticket sales, and booster mania. Neither the track team nor the fencing or field hockey squads are really matters of concern.)

As a prime example of what they fear the NCAA is sweeping under the artificial turf, the House members cite the unresolved scandal at the University of North Carolina, a basketball powerhouse. UNC academic advisers, sad to say, steered varsity football and basketball team members into fake classes that never met. In a series of pointed questions about the UNC debacle, the congressmen asked: “How does the NCAA determine that member institutions are not allowing fraudulent classes, such as those detailed in the 2010 case at the University of North Carolina, with the sole intent of keeping student-athletes athletically eligible?” And: “What steps is the NCAA taking to ensure that the problems identified at the University of North Carolina are not more widespread?” And: “Please include any documentation demonstrating how the NCAA has determined that these infractions are unique to the University of North Carolina?”

Excellent questions. I’d add one more: How has the NCAA justified its failure to investigate the well-documented corruption of hundreds of classes over many years at UNC, a fiasco that appears to have been motivated by a drive to keep football and basketball competitors eligible to play? The NCAA’s inaction in Chapel Hill raises inevitable suspicions that the association doesn’t want to risk finding that members of UNC’s 2005 and 2009 championship men’s basketball teams weren’t academically good to go.

When I’ve put these kinds of questions to the NCAA in the past, all I’ve received is off-the-record equivocation and on-the-record “no comments.” I asked the NCAA for a response to the congressional inquiry. “Thank you for reaching out,” Stacey Osburn, the association’s director of public and media relations, said via e-mail. “We received the letter this morning and will respond directly to the congressmen.” Illuminating!

The NCAA employs some of the best crisis communications consultants in the business. I have suggested strongly to these image-polishing gurus that they advise their client to sit down with me and provide a substantive and detailed explanation of how the NCAA proposes to resolve the manifold tensions created by the bizarre (and unique) American combination of multibillion-dollar sports franchises with higher education. It’s not like any thoughtful person thinks the way forward will be easy to chart.

But change, possibly revolution, is in the air, and hunkering down in the bunker in Indianapolis can’t be the savviest way to respond.

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