By Xander Zellner
From athletic scholarships, to college athlete compensation, to sexual assault, NCAA President Mark Emmert was faced with hours’ worth of questions Wednesday from a Senate committee.
Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., began the hearing by questioning the intentions of colleges and universities, saying that college athletics are meant to serve schools and to educate their students, not the other way around.
For much of the questioning from Rockefeller and Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., Emmert agreed with their points about NCAA issues. But he was left pointing a finger at university presidents and said that many of the issues – including athlete compensation and sexual assaults investigation procedures – are out of his control.
“I can’t tell whether you’re in charge or whether you’re a minion to them,” McCaskill said. “If you’re merely a monetary pass-through, why should you even exist?”
Rockefeller claimed that Emmert appears to have a “web of convenient protection” around him, adding, “You said frequently that you don’t have the authority to do anything, that you don’t have a vote, and everything is at the hands of the universities, but my cynical self says the universities like things the way they are because they are making lots of money.”
Rockefeller said that he would like to subpoena presidents from public universities to appear before the committee.
Emmert noted some of the positives that the NCAA has achieved, most notably that more than 460,000 young men and women at 1,084 institutions each year participate in 23 NCAA sports.
“The experience is exactly what it is intended to be: a meaningful extension of the educational process that provides the opportunity for students to compete fairly against other students, in an educational environment,” he said.
Emmert touched on several of Rockefeller’s concerns. He supported the idea of guaranteed multi-year scholarships – athletes often have one-year renewable scholarships - and "scholarships for life," as Emmert called them, which would pay tuition for athletes who come back to school after professional careers. The scholarships would cover costs beyond tuition, room and board.
He advocated for better health insurance and accident care coverage that occur as a result of athletics participation. And he said schools must tackle the sexual assault crisis.
Rockefeller cited former University of Connecticut guard and 2014 NCAA basketball tournament MVP Shabazz Napier. While the tournament generated “hundreds of millions of dollars in revenues for the NCAA,” Napier sometimes didn’t have enough to eat while he was in college.
Napier was just drafted into the NBA.
Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., a former running back at Stanford University, cited Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton, who experienced similar problems at Auburn University.
“It is exploitation when you have an athlete working 60-70 hours per week but not able to afford the basic necessities of life. Where is the urgency that this has been going on for decades in America?” he said. “We need another hearing with the real rule makers, the college presidents.”
Booker said this is the “dark side” of the NCAA.
Testifying with Emmert were two former college football players, Myron Rolle from Florida State University and Devon Ramsay from the University of North Carolina, author and historian Taylor Branch, former Temple University Athletics Director William Bradshaw and Richard Southall, director of the College Sport Research Institute at the University of South Carolina.
Though Rockefeller concluded the hearing by saying that opening all kinds of issues is a positive, he told Emmert that the system is “rigged” so that Emmert cannot accomplish anything and that it was probably “constructed for that purpose.”
“All I know coming out of this hearing is that I don’t think I’ve learning anything particularly new that I haven’t been hearing for 50 years, which is how long I’ve been in this business,” Rockefeller said. “This had been an important hearing, but not one that points to progress.”
Reach reporter Xander Zellner at Xander.Zellner@scripps.com or 202-326-9867. SHFWire stories are free to any news organization that gives the reporter a byline and credits the SHFWire.