Is the NCAA protecting amateurism more important than protecting the physical or educational well-being of student-athletes? It appears so, given the variance in the NCAA’s response to scandals involving its self-imposed duty to protect their “bedrock” principle of “amateurism” versus its duty to protect the physical or educational well-being of “student-athletes.” The NCAA quickly asserts its power to issue sanctions in cases involving “amateurism” (typically cases where athletes receive a so-called “impermissible benefit”), but somehow manages to avoid its obligation to act in cases where the conduct of coaches and other administrative personnel places “student-athletes” physical and educational well-being in jeopardy.
The NCAA proclaimed itself as the body responsible for upholding the principle of “amateurism”
They are supposed to ensure that “student-athletes” are not commercially or professionally exploited. This has come to mean making sure athletes are not able to profit from their athletic abilities outside of a cost of attendance scholarship. The NCAA also proclaimed itself to be the body that works to ensure that “intercollegiate programs [are] conducted in a manner designed to protect and enhance the physical and educational well-being of student-athletes.”[i] When presented with a case regarding an “impermissible benefit” the NCAA quickly responds and usually issues sanctions.
For example, when thirteen University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill (UNC) football players sold their team-issued shoes, the NCAA responded quickly suspending the players for one to four games. When Donald De La Haye, a former University of Central Florida (UCF) kicker, monetized his YouTube videos that featured him as a “student-athlete,” the NCAA swiftly swooped in to stop the monetization of his videos. The NCAA rushed in to require three Oklahoma University “student-athletes” to donate $3.83 each to a charity of their choice for violating NCAA rules by eating too much pasta at a graduation banquet. In these types of cases, the NCAA is swift in their response to make sure the athletes receive no benefit for their athletic prowess other than a scholarship under the guise of keeping the athletes safe from exploitation.
NCAA Slow to Tread
However, when it is time for the NCAA to act to protect the physical and educational well-being of “student-athletes” the NCAA treads slowly and usually finds a way to avoid its obligation to issue any sanctions at all in such cases. For example, the NCAA refrained from issuing sanctions against Michigan State University (MSU) in the case of Larry Nassar, who was criminally convicted of sexual assault earlier this year. The NCAA reasoned that although Nassar was criminally liable, there was nothing during the course of their investigation to suggest that an NCAA violation was committed. Similarly, in the academic fraud case at UNC, the NCAA avoided issuing sanctions reasoning that they lacked the power to sanction UNC because no “impermissible benefit” was given to the athletes because the “sham” courses were open to everyone at the university. In these types of cases, the NCAA is always eerily quiet and looking for a way to avoid truly getting involved.
The NCAA has yet to give a statement on whether Ohio State University will face any sanctions as a result of the scandal involving their revered football coach Urban Meyer who was recently suspended after being found to have knowledge of the domestic abuse allegations against his former assistant coach Zach Smith. The NCAA has also been measured in its response to the death of Jordan McNair, a University of Maryland, College Park football player who suffered a heat stroke during practice and died two weeks later. Given the NCAA’s response to similar cases involving “student-athletes” well-being, the NCAA will likely find a way to skirt its duty in these cases as well.
This leads one to question.
What message is the NCAA sending to their beloved “student-athletes” by essentially remaining silent in cases that involve athlete welfare, but always rushing to issue sanctions in cases involving “impermissible benefits?” The NCAA is sending the message that “impermissible benefits” are of paramount concern to the NCAA, but issues involving athlete welfare not so much. These actions leave “student-athletes” with only one possible view and that is that protecting “amateurism” is more important to the NCAA than protecting the physical or educational well-being of “student-athletes.”
[i] 2017-2018 NCAA Division I Manual, (2017), available at http://image.cdnllnwnl.xosnetwork.com/attachments1/files/11600/628372.pdf?DB_OEM_ID=11600.