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Does the relationship between colleges and student-athletes need to be recalibrated?

April 6, 2015 at 6:20 PM EDT
As the March Madness NCAA basketball tournament comes to a close, Jeffrey Brown takes a look at the role of the student athlete on the court, in the classroom and at the negotiating table with Emmett Gill of the Student-Athletes Human Rights Project and former NBA player Len Elmore of the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics.
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GWEN IFILL: Tonight, as the men’s college basketball tournament comes to a close, we take a look at the role of the student-athlete, in the game, in the classroom, and at the negotiating table.

Jeffrey Brown is back with that.

MAN: He’s got an open three, and it rattles home!

JEFFREY BROWN: It’s March Madness, when basketball rules and the NCAA revels in the attention. Indeed, Wisconsin’s win on Saturday over unbeaten Kentucky was the most-watched semifinal in 22 years.

MAN: Look at this right, back with it!

JEFFREY BROWN: Duke dominated Michigan State in the other semifinal and will face Wisconsin tonight.

On the women’s side, the University of Connecticut is aiming to continue its dynasty, going for a third straight championship tomorrow against Notre Dame.

But behind the backdrop of tournament time, there is serious pressure on a number of fronts, including whether and how schools should compensate student-athletes.

Last year, former UCLA basketball star Ed O’Bannon won a lawsuit that calls for paying players at least $5,000 a year for rights to their names and images. The NCAA is appealing.

ED O’BANNON, Former UCLA Basketball Player: Everything has changed about the game. The rules have changed. Everything has changed, except for how a player is compensated.

JEFFREY BROWN: Then there’s academic fraud. A former football player and a one-time women’s basketball player have sued the University of North Carolina and the NCAA over bogus classes. At a pre-Final Four press conference last week, NCAA president Mark Emmert spoke of rebalancing the student-athlete equation.

MARK EMMERT, President, NCAA: To be — especially within Division I, to be a successful Division I and a successful student is a very demanding task. And in some cases, it’s too demanding and we need to find ways to not just provide, but insist that they have more time to be students as well as student-athletes.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yet another question involves who pays when athletes get hurt, a subject highlighted recently on HBO’s “Real Sports.”

BERNIE GOLDBERG, HBO: You got hurt playing football at the University of Washington.

DARIN HARRIS, Former University of Washington Football Player: Yes.

BERNIE GOLDBERG: And then you went back after you left the school, to the team doctor, because of the problems you were having as a result of that injury.

DARIN HARRIS: Right. And now I had to pay.

BERNIE GOLDBERG: Harris learned a hard lesson that day a lesson many NCAA student-athletes have been surprised to learn. Once you’re done with college, college is typically done with you. You’re not only stuck with the injuries you sustained. You’re also stuck with the medical bills.

JEFFREY BROWN: Looming ethical and legal questions.

Still, for these next two nights, at least, the focus of sports fans will be on and not in the courts.

So, what is expected of the collegiate athlete today, and what should he or she ask in return?

We’re joined by Len Elmore, a sportscaster and former collegiate and professional basketball player, and Emmett Gill, professor of public policy at the University of Texas at San Antonio, and founder of the Student-Athletes Human Rights Project, an advocacy group.

And, Emmett Gill, let me start with you.

Does the student-athlete equation need rebalancing or a complete overhaul?  How would you define the role today?

EMMETT GILL, Student-Athletes Human Rights Project: Jeffrey, absolutely.

I think that it definitely needs rebalancing. I wouldn’t say a complete overhaul, because I think that we are moving in the right direct when we talk about cost of living stipends and four-year scholarships.

Nonetheless, I think the two issues that are on the table that definitely need reform is the issue of use in name and likeness and the issue of who takes care of the health bills once a student-athlete’s eligibility has expired.

JEFFREY BROWN: Len Elmore, let me ask you the same general question first. How do you see the balancing act now?

LEN ELMORE, Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletes: Well, I think — and I agree with Emmett Gill that it requires rebalancing.

I mean, the definition of amateurism certainly has changed and we need to balance the equity, so to speak, to be able to reflect that. You know, we talk about revenues derived from basketball championships, television market being, et cetera. And certainly some of that needs to go to the benefit of the student-athlete.

I wouldn’t advocate paying them directly as though they were employees, because that opens up a new Pandora’s box, but, nevertheless, things such as medical benefits, things such as the true cost of an education, certainly those differences have to be made up.

JEFFREY BROWN: Len Elmore, staying with you, why does that open a new Pandora’s box to actually pay the student something out of all of this money that is flowing, especially in something like the Final Four?

LEN ELMORE: Well, when I say pay the students, again, I want to make sure everybody understands I’m not eliminating the idea of the benefits I just spoke of and making up the true cost of an education, being able to pay medical benefits, et cetera, you know, provide value for the services that the student-athlete provides.

But, remember, student-athletes are also deriving a benefit as welcome. The monies that go — if you take a look at the NCAA, most of the revenue derived from the championships, et cetera, go to the benefit of student-athletes, whether it’s the grant in aids, whether it’s medical benefits, whether it’s the whole host of things going to the conferences which should ultimately go to the student-athlete.

But, nevertheless, I think that paying them, the Pandora’s box would be, is this taxable income?  And what is the difference, what is the bright line difference between the collegiate model, as well as the professional model?  You pay them directly, what is the difference?  There is no difference.

JEFFREY BROWN: Emmett Gill, what is your response on that, thinking about the money and how much a student-athlete deserves and how it should be paid?

EMMETT GILL: I agree with Len, Jeffrey, in the sense that Len mentions the value of an education and what student-athletes receive.

And I believe in a model where male and female student-athletes are able to use their name and likeness to build their brand name recognition, and then they’re able to go into a marketing class or an accounting class and apply, you know, the skills that they have learned from balancing a checkbook because they are receiving some type of income from their name and likeness.

I don’t believe in paying student-athletes because I do agree with Len. It would open up an additional Pandora’s box. But, additionally, it wouldn’t provide student-athletes with an opportunity to learn about managing money, about managing their brand, about looking for opportunities to expand their brand. And I’m not just talking about the male student-athletes.

I’m talking about the female student-athletes as well. So I think we need a model that allows student-athletes to integrate their educational opportunities with the financial opportunities that come with them being a big-time college athlete.

JEFFREY BROWN: What about, Len Elmore, the educational side of this equation?  How could or should the NCAA ensure that athletes really do get to be students, that they get an education?  Is there any way to do that?

LEN ELMORE: Well, certainly there is.

But, first of all, let me talk about something that Emmett just brought up. With regard to name and likeness, I agree that there should be some kind of sharing in that model, but I don’t agree that it should be a direct payment. I would use it as a carrot, put it in trust and allow these young people to be able to access it after graduation.

And I mean after graduation. You do it during the season, then you would have a problem of, OK, who deserves what?  If I’m the star quarterback, do I deserve all of this accolade, but my right tackle and my left tackle doesn’t?  That becomes a problem that suddenly destroys some of the teaching benefits of playing team sports and participating in individual sports.

Now, you know, as far as the other question is concerned, it is up to the individual institutions. I don’t think it’s the NCAA, which, by the way, is not a monolith — it’s almost like a managing agent, if you will, for the member school. It’s up to each individual institution, with all of the information that is available out there, to make sure that that information is conveyed to the student-athlete.

And then — and here is the biggest problem I have, particularly with the lawsuits — we’re having a situation where we have absolved the student-athlete of any responsibility of getting an education, at least when you look at the mechanics of the lawsuits, et cetera. They’re saying that it’s up to the school.

But these kids when they make choices as to which school to go to, they are the age of majority. They have the ability to make decisions. They have to be advocates for their education. If they weren’t getting playing time, I guarantee you they would be advocates for their playing time, so why couldn’t they be advocates for their own education?

Why are some student-athletes doing extremely well, on the honor roll, all academic honor rolls, et cetera, and others aren’t doing well?  Much of it is because of the choices the student-athlete makes. And I wouldn’t absolve them from the responsibility. Certainly, institutions have responsibility, but so do the student-athletes.

JEFFREY BROWN: Go ahead, Emmett Gill.

Do you think though that there should be rules from the institutions to ensure these kind of educational standards?

EMMETT GILL: No, you know, I agree with Len to a certain degree, in the sense, Jeffrey, we can’t legislate higher education and how student-athletes feel about higher education.

But I do agree with Len in the sense that student-athletes are responsible for advocating for their own education. And that’s what we preach at the Student-Athletes Human Rights Project. I don’t think that it’s the NCAA’s responsibility.

And you notice that, in their dismissal — in their request for the UNC lawsuit to be dismissed, they’re saying that they’re not responsible. UNC, the coaches, you know, they say that they’re not responsible for student-athletes’ education. And so it does fall on the student-athlete.

On the other hand, you know, Mr. Elmore, being an all-American at the University of Maryland, certainly understands that, you know, if a coach says that you need to be at practice at 1:00 p.m., and there are certain classes that you can’t take after 1:00 p.m., if you want to be in that lineup, if you want to be in that starting lineup, then you’re going to be in practice.

And so, Jeffrey, it’s not just individual student-athletes who need to begin to advocate for their education. Collectively, student-athletes need to begin to advocate for their education, like the kids did at Northwestern University. And then they will understand better what they have to do.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right.

LEN ELMORE: And let me add more layer to that.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes, very briefly.

LEN ELMORE: That is, the coaches are responsible, as surrogate parents, as educators. That’s all part and parcel of the leadership development that intercollegiate sports presents.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Len Elmore and Emmett Gill, thanks so much.

 

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