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Elite Only Legislation Misses Point About Student-Athlete Protection

A California congress-person has introduced the latest in a series of state and federal legislative proposals to increase the regulation of the NCAA particularly in areas involving student-athlete health and education. The Collegiate Student Athlete Protection Act would

  • Guarantee student-athlete scholarships for five years or until graduation;
  • Require institutions to provide fifth-year aid to athletes who have not yet graduated;
  • Require annual concussion baseline testing in contact sports;
  • Require coverage of all costs of any injury suffered by an athlete;
  • Require formal administrative hearings before student-athlete aid is cancelled with cause;
  • Require quicker answers when a student-athlete requests permission to contact another school about a transfer; and
  • Require institutions to provide education to student-athletes on concussions, personal finance, and time management.

But there are two catches. First, not all schools would be covered: Cárdenas’ bill is modeled on a law that took effect in California this year. The legislation would cover athletes in all sports at schools whose athletics departments annually generate at least $10 million in media rights fees on their own and/or from shares of conference and NCAA rights deals. Additionally, fifth-year aid would only be required if a student-athlete’s team had a Graduation Success Rate of less than 70%. Rep. Tony Cádenas (D-CA) defended the $10 million rights fee requirement like this: “I want to make sure it’s clear that I’m not trying to punish small schools. I’m not trying to make something that’s unfair,” Cárdenas said. “I want to make something that actually is relevant to the universities and colleges that are actually doing very well” financially. Completely unanswered is why this legislation is not relevant to institutions who are not doing that well financially. Rep. Cárdenas’s reasoning, which advances the idea that college athletics is a run-away business which must be brought to heel, ignores two key facts. First, the things in Cárdenas’s and other similar bills are not being requested as nice improvements for student-athletes. They are being championed as inalienable rights. Second, while major college football and men’s basketball is a good business to be in, college athletics is not operated by private businesses. In general, college athletics involves non-profit institutions or arms of state government receiving significant funding from federal and state taxpayers. A poorly diagnosed concussion is no less dangerous at Boise State than it is at Alabama. A student-athlete whose scholarship is cut at Miami (OH) is not better off because the institution made less revenue off athletics than Miami (FL). Why should a for-profit business like Grand Canyon University be allowed to skimp on medical bills when a non-profit like Stanford must cover every penny? None of the financial aid measures or due process protections in either this federal bill or the California legislation it is modeled after require an institution to spend more money. In fact, based on how the NCAA interprets the replacement scholarships required by the laws, an institution might be prohibited from spending more on financial aid. If concussion testing and medical coverage is important enough for the power conferences, it should not be a corner which smaller athletic departments are allowed to cut when competing against the haves. The NCAA has over the years done a decent job allowing wealthy institutions to provide more for their athletes, a trend which is expected to go into overdrive with the coming governance changes. To the extent that institutions have not taken that opportunity on critical issues, perhaps Congressional intervention is necessary. But not having the revenue to cover a basic protection for student-athletes should not excuse an institution that is still competing at the highest level.

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