NCAA vice president Kevin Lennon on Tuesday told the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics that schools should resist pressure to change the rules on what it means to be an amateur college athlete.
“We know degree completion will best serve them in the long run,” Lennon said. “The introduction of pay may lead some – not all, but some – to not take full advantage of these educational opportunities that are available to them in their college years.”
On the sidelines of the meeting, Lennon, the National Collegiate Athletic Association vice president of Division I governance, said in an interview that he wouldn’t talk about his organization’s investigation into the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill academic scandal. Federal prosecutor Kenneth Wainstein found athlete eligibility at the heart of the scandal, in which fake classes were created in the African studies department.
Lennon said the answer wasn’t necessarily more public information about what classes athletes took. They shouldn’t be given extra scrutiny, he said.
“Depending on what an institution likes to do for all their students, I would think they’d apply the same policy to their student athletes,” Lennon said.
During the commission’s meeting, no individual infractions cases were discussed.
Lennon, speaking on a panel about compensating athletes, said public support for college sports would drop off if the line blurred between amateur players and professionals.
“Amateur status, as defined by being college eligible, is compromised when they use their athletic skill for pay,” he said at the meeting, which the Knight Commission described as a “public examination” of issues surrounding pay for college athletes. The commission, which was founded in 1989 after a series of high-profile college sports scandals, has no connection to the NCAA.
Other panelists suggested that there are ways colleges and universities could do more for athletes without running afoul of the laws that protect competition.
The discussion came as the NCAA is appealing a federal judge’s decision to allow football and men’s basketball players to be compensated in addition to scholarships for the commercialized use of their names, images and likenesses. Other cases that could change the status of amateur players include one that seeks a free market to pay college athletes. Another ruling allowed Northwestern University football players to form a labor union.
“The sand is shifting underneath the feet of NCAA, and it’s important to re-evaluate the model of intercollegiate athletics that we’ve been working with,” said Andrew Zimbalist, a sports economist at Smith College.
He argued that schools could treat athletes better and stay within the model of amateurism, for example by offering year-round health insurance and lifetime disability insurance for college athletic injuries.
Zimbalist also said that Congress should establish a presidential commission on college sports. Rep. Bobby Rush, D-Ill., introduced a bill, H.R. 275, in January that would set up such a commission to examine issues such as how athletics are financed, health and safety protections and the recruitment and retention of athletes.
“Whether you think they’re employees or not, they certainly work,” said Doug Allen, a professor at the School of Labor and Employment Relations at Penn State University. His ideas included covering athletes’ full cost of attendance, including travel to and from their homes, and giving four-year scholarships that can’t be taken away if their athletic performance falters. These and other improvements should be granted in exchange for athletes agreeing to be full-time students making progress toward their degrees, he said.
Some of the panelists mentioned the many hours football and basketball players spend practicing. Currently there is no alternative to college as a path to professional football or basketball. Neither the NFL nor the NBA has a farm system like baseball, and both prevent athletes from being drafted out of high school.
Ronald Katz, an attorney and board chairman of the Institute of Sports Law and Ethics at Santa Clara University, said that “student athlete” was a term that should be jettisoned, because it implied two separate roles.
He also made five other proposals: Students should be on track for graduation in order to be eligible to play; sports scholarship recipients should commit to four years in college; red shirting should be banned (allowing a student to practice and attend classes while not using one of his or her four years of athletic eligibility); NCAA bylaws should be simplified; and retired judges, not NCAA officials, should decide when rules are broken.
One of the members of the commission said those suggestions seemed simple and wondered why they weren’t carried out.
Katz responded by referring to the millions of dollars at stake in college football and basketball.
“The one-word answer,” he replied, “is money.”