Lawmakers Take Aim At 'Abysmal Cesspool' Of College Sports

In an effort to “bring actual accountability” to collegiate sports, four members of Congress announced Thursday they will introduce legislation that could give the federal government a role in reshaping the way the NCAA treats college athletes on multiple fronts.

Reps. Charlie Dent (R-Pa.), Joyce Beatty (D-Ohio), John Katko (R-N.Y.) and Bobby Rush (D-Ill.) announced plans to introduce the National Collegiate Athletics Accountability Act, a bill that mirrors similar legislation Dent and Beatty proposed in 2013.

Like that bill, the new legislation requires concussion testing for all athletes in contact sports, mandates that schools guarantee four-year scholarships to athletes in those sports, and seeks to improve due process rights for athletes and schools accused of NCAA rules infractions. The bill would prevent universities from accessing federal Title IV education funds if they do not comply with these stipulations.

The NCAA has been the subject of widespread criticism from former athletes and in the media, and is facing multiple federal lawsuits over concussions and athlete compensation. But the legislation is the latest indication of growing governmental interest in the organization’s treatment of college athletes. It has already been the subject of committee hearings in both houses of Congress and has drawn the concern of President Barack Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan.

"The NCAA's stated goal is to protect the welfare of student athlete with an 'increased emphasis on athletics and academics,’” Dent said at a Thursday press conference to announce the legislation. “Bluntly, the NCAA has failed in my view -- has failed miserably."

The new bill also calls for the creation of a presidential commission on intercollegiate athletics that would analyze the diminishing role of athletes’ academics in major college sports, the lack of health and safety protections for athletes and the ever-growing finances of the NCAA. The commission could then make reform recommendations to Congress and the White House.

Rush proposed legislation to create such a commission in January. That legislation could still proceed on its own, but is now also incorporated into the larger package of reforms.

The Illinois congressman offered the harshest criticism for the NCAA at the press conference, saying the the organization “exploits (athletes’) labor without pay.” It is beyond time, he said, to reform “the abysmal cesspool that’s called college athletics in America.”

The NCAA has no comment on the legislation at this time, a spokesperson said in an email.

The NCAA has found itself on the wrong end of other Congressional criticism in recent years. Rep. Linda Sanchez (D-Calif.) wrote a letter to NCAA president Mark Emmert in 2013 expressing concern over its lax treatment of concussions, specifically referencing the 2012 death of 22-year-old college football player Derek Sheely.

But even in an atmosphere in which the NCAA is facing challenges on multiple flanks, Dent and Beatty’s original legislation never received so much as a committee vote. And it's unclear if now will prove any different. Dent said the lawmakers would continue to push for committee hearings and could attempt to bring up their bill as an amendment if Congress considers the Higher Education Reauthorization Act this year.

“Many will ask the question why Congress is getting engaged in this,” Beatty said. “The reason is, talk is not enough.”

Despite a lack of legislative progress, pressure from Congress and various lawsuits has pushed the NCAA and its members to enact recent changes. The NCAA’s members voted three years ago to allow schools to provide multiyear scholarships instead of granting aid on a year-to-year basis. The Big Ten guaranteed four-year scholarships conference-wide, a development Beatty said occurred in part because Congress has taken an interest in protecting athletes.

The NCAA also agreed last year to put $70 million toward concussion testing and prevention as part of a preliminary legal settlement in a suit brought by former athletes, though the fate of that funding is uncertain after the lead plaintiff called the settlement “completely unacceptable” and urged a judge to reject it this week. There have been smaller concussion-related changes on the conference level, where the Big 12 this year mandated that medical officials, rather than coaches, determine when athletes return to play following suspected brain injuries.

Still, there are questions about “whether the NCAA can reform itself,” the lawmakers said, especially as it has grown into such a big business.

“It has become a corporate colossus that is more concerned with money than they are concerned with the student-athlete," Katko said.