Senators Pressure NCAA to Put Scholarship Above Sports

WASHINGTON – A Senate panel provided NCAA President Mark Emmert with some rough treatment on Wednesday on issues ranging from the treatment of college athletes to investigations into reports of sexual abuse.

For his part, Emmert tried to assuage members of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, voicing support for the concept of “scholarships for life” for athletes while acknowledging that “changes are needed.”

“Intercollegiate athletics provides more financial aid to more students-athletes than ever before,” Emmert said. “More student-athletes are graduating than ever before and student-athletes enter college better prepared and leave college better conditioned to take on leadership roles throughout our society.”

But panel members made it clear that there is deep dissatisfaction with NCAA operations. Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), the committee chairman, expressed concern that the system is being corrupted by money, wondering if the NCAA is “simply a legal cartel.”

“Colleges and universities say that these revenues benefit college athletes and their student bodies at large,” Rockefeller said. “But I think we have to consider whether the lure of such riches could corrupt the basic mission of athletic programs. Winning teams get higher payouts than losing teams, which creates a strong incentive to win at any cost. And much of the money is often funneled right back into those sports programs, in the form of multi-million dollar coaching salaries and state of the art facilities – to perpetuate that cycle of winning.”

Athletics, Rockefeller said, “are meant to serve schools and their public duty to educate students, not the other way around.”

Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), the committee’s ranking member, also sought to remind Emmert that “the college student-athlete is and should be a student first.”

Thune cited criticism that “some institutions appear unable to balance the core academic mission of the university and the commercial considerations that often accompany college athletics, particularly in high-profile sports. Many feel the commitment to the ‘student-athlete’ is falling short.”

The hearing marked the second time in two months that a congressional committee held a hearing regarding the authority of the NCAA, which finds itself under increasing pressure to adopt changes to better serve the student-athlete.

The House Education and the Workforce Committee held a hearing in May about the potential consequences of a movement initiated by Northwestern University football players to unionize college athletes – a process opposed by Emmert and the NCAA. The organization also is facing a lawsuit from former student-athletes, most prominently former UCLA basketball player Ed O'Bannon, who maintain student-athletes should get a share of the revenues from the use of their names, images and likenesses in broadcasts and videogames. Emmert opposes any attempts to pay athletes, saying it runs counter to the concept of amateurism.

But Emmert told lawmakers that promoting student-athlete success in the classroom and on the field stands “first and foremost” among his priorities, maintaining that the aim is to enable them “to succeed throughout life.”

“And while we strive every day to do just that, I strongly believe improvements need to be made and more work must be done,” Emmert said.