Four California universities with big-time sports programs are fighting a legislative effort that could radically change the way schools recruit, educate and retain student athletes.
The schools are opposing the "Student Athlete Bill of Rights," they say, because it would be too expensive, put their programs at a competitive disadvantage and may go against NCAA rules.
Senate Bill 1525, by Sen. Alex Padilla, D-Los Angeles, would require schools earning more than $10 million a year in media revenue from athletic programs to continue an athlete's scholarship if he or she is no longer able to participate in athletics, and would allow athletes to switch schools without restriction. The bill also would force schools to provide student athletes with life skills and financial workshops and pay health care premiums for low-income individuals.
"It's evident to me we're losing focus on the mission of the university itself," Padilla said. Student athletes, he added, "should be competing second to getting an education."
His measure would affect the University of Southern California, UCLA, UC Berkeley and Stanford University. Other schools would be affected if their media revenue reaches the $10 million threshold.
The bill's centerpiece provision would require schools to provide scholarships to athletes who become injured or whose scholarships aren't renewed for nondisciplinary reasons. The impact would be tempered at some schools, however, because this provision would not apply to athletes on teams with a graduation rate greater than 60 percent. At Stanford, for instance, all athletic teams have a graduation rate over 90 percent, said Patrick Dunkley, Stanford's deputy director of athletics.
Still, the schools argue that the requirement would be expensive for schools where it does apply and that any proposed new rules should cover all schools.
"If we're going to apply a bill of rights it should apply equally to all athletes at all institutions, not just ones who make more than $10 million in media revenue," Dunkley said.
Larry Scott, commissioner of the Pac-12 Conference to which all four schools belong, said the league opposes Padilla's bill because it "would clearly be harmful and put Pac-12 schools in our state on an uneven playing field."
The schools say they already continue scholarships for injured athletes, but they oppose doing so for athletes who leave the team for performance reasons. Providing scholarships for those students, the schools contend, would unfairly count against the scholarship limit imposed by the NCAA and put them at a competitive disadvantage.
Rick Allen, founder of Informed Athlete, an organization that advises athletes and their parents, agreed with the schools' assessment.
"Any time an athlete receives a scholarship that is athletically related and has a basis in the fact that they are an athlete, it's going to count against NCAA limits," he said. "It would hamper their ability to be competitive with their Pac-12 counterparts."
The schools also contend that a provision requiring them to pay health care premiums for low-income athletes would run afoul of NCAA rules that prevent athletes from receiving extra benefits.
The NCAA declined to comment on any aspect of the bill, but the organization's bylaws appear to allow universities to pick up the tab for health coverage.
"I don't know if these schools are confused or if they are trying to cause confusion," said a supporter of Padilla's bill, Ramogi Huma, a former UCLA linebacker and president of the National College Players Association.
The schools also oppose the bill's provisions on athletic transfers. Under NCAA rules, an athlete's school can block his or her release to another school. Athletes who transfer without permission are unable to receive scholarships or compete for one year.
Padilla's bill would require the schools to approve all transfer requests without restrictions.
The opposition letter from affected universities said this provision would make athletes "desirable prey."
"It creates a competitive disadvantage for the schools that would be impacted by the bill," Dunkley said. "Every other school can make a decision on whether they want to allow transfers. It would make our four schools the only ones with this requirement."
But Huma said the proposal will prevent students from being "held hostage when they want to transfer" and athletes from being held to different standards than other students.
Padilla added that "a student athlete is a student first" and should be able to transfer without penalty.
David Ridpath, Ohio University assistant professor of sports administration, said the change in transfer rules may actually help the schools with recruitment.
"The schools in California will have the ability to recruit people saying that 'hey we won't restrict you,' " Ridpath said. He added that the guarantee of a scholarship – regardless of performance – and the ability to change schools easily will make the four schools a desirable place for athletes.
The bill has won support from one group of student athletes. Jeff Locke, the kicker for the UCLA football team, coordinated a petition in favor of the bill signed by 72 current UCLA football players.
"I just felt like the lawmakers needed to know that there are players behind this bill even if the school many not be," Locke said.
The bill passed 22-14 in the Senate and is scheduled for the Assembly Higher Education Committee June 27.
"It creates a competitive disadvantage ... It would make our four schools the only ones with this requirement."