California’s Student-Athlete Bill of Rights Could Lead to More Frequent Government-Backed Forays into NCAA Policy

Posted by Chris Johnson on September 28th, 2012

Chris Johnson is an RTC columnist. He can be reached @ChrisDJohnsonn.

The wave of appeals to change the NCAA’s amateurism model, and increasing scrutiny therein, is not a new phenomenon. Various ethical questions and proposals were raised in different forms and distinctions over the years as the framework of the modern college athletic scape was tested by a series of scandals. Most recently, the organization has come under sharp criticism for its perceived inaction against Duke and North Carolina, two preeminent programs where an overwhelming swath of evidence points to severe allegations – one academic (UNC) and one amateur-related (Duke). The backlash is as much a byproduct of a widespread desire to see the Tar Heels and Blue Devils face punishment as it is a critique of the NCAA’s approach. But for the most part, the public outcry deals not with the organization’s failure to swing around its punitive heft, but the very structure from which it derives its power. There is a general disagreement with the notion that the organization can leverage the competitive product offered by its athletes – by securing lucrative media rights deals and showcasing its athletes on national networks – without actually compensating those athletes. Fundamental moral reasoning is invoked to criticize the revenue-producing college athlete’s inability to advance himself financially (beyond what’s already provided by athletic scholarships). Free market principles, along with appeals to the decades-old literary-conceived “American Dream” concept, are conjured up to blast the NCAA’s apparent limitations. Whatever the origin or direction of their complaints, the NCAA has weathered a diverse range of challenges to its ruling power, challenges that for the most part have fallen on deaf ears.

With Brown signing into effect the Student Athlete Bill of Rights, the door has been cracked open for future government intervention in NCAA policy (photo credit: Lucy Nicholson/ Reuters).

For years the organization occupied something of an impenetrable perch of incontrovertible truth, as if its methods and guidelines were beyond reproach. But lately, we’ve witnessed a gradual chipping away of that unquestioned status. The Ed O’Bannon lawsuit, which has the potential to dismantle the NCAA’s amateurism structure once and for all (and is scheduled to go on trial in early 2014), is building considerable momentum in advance of what figures to be the landmark athletics court case of the 21st century. An improved public understanding of the organization’s practices and rules has fanned the anti-NCAA flame. Prominent columnists and sports commentators have made bashing the NCAA a monthly, even weekly, practice. The mounting scorn could soon reach a tipping point. Another authoritative challenge materialized Thursday, this time from a ruling body whose power decidedly trumps that which rules college athletics. California governor Jerry Brown signed into law a powerful piece of legislation devised specifically to address student-athletes at the state’s four Pac-12 schools. It’s called the “Student-Athlete Bill of Rights,” and it connotes exactly what you might expect. Much like the document our Founding Fathers concocted amidst the fight against British tyranny – only slightly less primal, and not nearly as influential, of course – the bill secures fundamental freedoms for student athletes beginning in 2013.

The provisions, from my distant vantage point, are overall positive developments for student-athletes and the limited freedoms they’ve dealt with for so many years. At the heart of the legislation is the issue of student-athlete health care and the logistical implications of preserving insurance premiums for low-income athletes. A separate clause deals with providing “equivalent” scholarships to student-athletes who are either injured or lose their athletic scholarship for some other reason, along with those who exhaust their eligibility before completing their academic degree. These are not sweeping changes, but they do offer the promise of an improved financial and medical support base for disadvantaged players. Wherever you fall on the NCAA’s authoritative principles, it’s hard to imagine someone crafting a reasoned argument against these measures. Beyond potential logistical hiccups in the surplus scholarship load, you’d be hard pressed to come up with an ethical or moral take-down of this bill. These are baby steps, but steps in the right direction nonetheless.

The California state government has thrown its hat into the ring of NCAA controversy, and its efforts deserve a robust round of applause. The next step – measuring the repercussions of its intrusion into NCAA policies, and how the organization deals with this fundamental challenge to its power – will be fascinating to observe. A higher authority has proven it can step in and exact change on behalf of the NCAA’s student-athletes. In creating and signing this law, which doesn’t touch on the loudest NCAA-related grievance, its methods of governing  student-athletes, California used its power in a limited scope. But the ease with which it passed the bill and imposed its effects on the NCAA raises the question of whether or not California and/or other states will attempt to produce a more potent legislative cannon to shoot down the NCAA’s amateurism structure, the same mission driving O’Bannon into the legal arena. This move revealed the NCAA’s relative weakness in the grand scheme of the American legal system. It showed that if Capitol Hill wants to get involved – President Obama? Hello? – it certainly has the authoritative muscle to do so. It remains unclear whether other NCAA dissidents will attempt to use this pathway as a means to challenge the organization. Federal officials are powerful arbitrators capable of affecting massive rule alterations. Because the NCAA falls under its purview, the potential exists for a government-backed assault on the NCAA’s version of amateurism. Perhaps this larger challenge would require a national, and not state-specific initiative (as was the case with the Student-Athlete Bill of Rights). But if the grassroots support is present, the sea of change, provided a motivated politician is in place, could soon involve the might of federal heavyweights. On Thursday, a big, bad administrative bully rose up and proved it can push the NCAA around with little more than a stern chest poke. That bully, the American government, could be the force that finally topples the NCAA’s grip on college athletics.

Chris Johnson (290 Posts)

My name is Chris Johnson and I'm a national columnist here at RTC, the co-founder of Northwestern sports site Insidenu.com and a freelance contributor to SI.com.


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