NCAA Goes to Washington and Tries to Negotiate Its Way Out of Trouble

The best way to understand the multifront legal war over the college sports business, as I argued in a recent post, is as a messy negotiation over reform of the National Collegiate Athletic Association. Testimony before a U.S. Senate committee on Wednesday underscored this point.

As I wrote two weeks ago:

“It’s tempting to view this as a widening all-out war in which one side—the players or the NCAA and its business partners—will win and the other will lose. It’s also tempting to get caught up in the fine points of antitrust and labor law. Another, more illuminating perspective would emphasize that one way or another big changes are coming to the college sports business. In this sense, the legal hostilities aren’t so much a fight over justice and ‘amateurism,’ whatever the latter concept means in the thoroughly commercialized world of Division I sports, as they are a cumbersome, expensive form of negotiation over the nature and extent of changes that are definitely coming.”

The hearing before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation signaled that lawmakers intend to parachute into an already crowded battlefield on which pending lawsuits seek various forms of player compensation, more attention to academics and medical care, and even some form of union-like representation. “What I perceive is a web of convenient protection,” committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) lectured representatives of the NCAA, including the association’s president, Mark Emmert. “What I want to see is a panel of subpoenaed university presidents from land-grant publicly funded universities up here. And I think it’ll come to that. It’s going to have to. I don’t think we’re going to work anything out without it.”

From the witness table, Emmert pushed back: “College sports,” he said, “works extremely well for the vast majority of our 460,000 student-athletes.” That comment illustrates Emmert’s frustrating tendency to retreat behind irrelevancy. No one has said there’s a big problem with the vast majority of undergrad athletes: the fencers and soccer players, field hockey mavens and volleyball fiends.

The problem lies with big-time men’s basketball and football. At the most prominent sports factories, these games have become multibillion-dollar businesses occupying 40 or 50 hours a week of athletes’ time, while consigning them to working conditions inconsistent with the commercial value of the televised extravaganzas built around their athletic feats.

Still, if one listened to the entirety of Emmert’s testimony, what seemed striking was that the NCAA is already moving toward reform and compromise. It’s doing so, to be sure, under pressure from the lawsuits—and now Congress—but the negotiation is under way. This is not winner-take-all.

Emmert expressed support for guaranteed four-year scholarships, so that players who suffer injuries or get cut from the varsity squad don’t find themselves abandoned and unable to complete their degrees. He spoke of new guidelines the NCAA is pushing that would limit full-contact football practices in light of growing concern about the risks of head injury. In recent weeks, two of the largest college athletic conferences, the Pac-12 and the Big Ten, have publicly called for similar changes that would ensure athletes receive the degrees they’ve been promised and leave campus with adequate medical coverage.

The lawsuits will continue. Congressional investigations are coming. The NCAA hasn’t moved quickly enough to adjust to the realities of commercialized college sports, and now it’s paying the price in expensive litigation and embarrassing scrutiny on Capitol Hill. What’s more, there are demands that the NCAA and many of its constituent schools will continue to fight: full-on competitive salaries for college basketball and football stars, for example, as well as player unions.

All that said, ideas are being exchanged. Settlement proposals are circulating even as courtroom hostilities persist. NCAA leaders know that rules have to change and that the future of a $16 billion-a-year industry demands improvement in how college athletes are treated.

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