A Novel Path for NCAA Reform

The COVID-19 pandemic could have killed the momentum of college sports activism. Instead, it may have given the movement its biggest boost.


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By Luke Cyphers and Daniel Libit

“I am transfixed,” says Sonny Vaccaro.

Every night, these days, the octogenarian former shoe company executive sits on the couch in his Rancho Mirage, Calif., home and watches MSNBC’s Brian Williams recap the latest state of COVID-19 woe. 

“It has been the saddest five or six weeks of my life,” says Vaccaro, who counts more than a dozen friends who have succumbed to the novel virus thus far. Among the fallen are Steve Hudson, a long-time AAU basketball coach in Chicago, and three former New York City youth basketball stars, now middle-aged, who had attended the same party last month at a cigar shop in Scarsdale, N.Y. Vaccaro recalled that the men, whose haunting deaths were profiled in the New York Times, had all once participated in his renowned youth basketball showcase, The Roundball Classic.

“I’m a nervous wreck,” says Vaccaro, who has been sheltering in place along with the rest of California since March 19, and intently following the advice of the former point guard at New York City’s Regis High School. “I’m 80, and am doing everything Dr. [Anthony] Fauci tells me to do — he’s my hero.”

Sonny Vaccaro at his home on March 24, 2020

With the whole nation transfixed by the pandemic, and individual citizens making potentially life-and-death choices every day about something as mundane as a grocery run, it makes sense to assume that a casualty of COVID-19 would be the momentum of the college sports reform movement. Reformers entered 2020 riding a wave of public support and rare bipartisan political consensus about the injustice of a fat-cat class of coaches, administrators and institutions claiming all the monetary fruits of unpaid player labor. But that wave was cresting when the Dow neared 30,000, unemployment was at 3.5 percent and the virus hadn’t begun taking as many American lives in a month as the Vietnam War claimed over two decades. Now, with our countrymen glued to their TVs and iPhones, processing information and misinformation — on everything from the plague’s origins to local toilet-paper supplies to the merits of ingesting floor cleaner (Editor’s note: don’t) — who has any bandwidth left for debates over what is, by definition, an extracurricular, non-essential industry?

Turns out college-sports reformers do. Rather than let the disease run its course and react to the NCAA membership’s response, intercollegiate athletics revolutionaries see a multi-faceted opportunity for a real course correction in a corrupt, and suddenly vulnerable, system. The NCAA, in the wake of its cancellation of its most lucrative revenue source, its Division I men’s basketball postseason tournament, is cutting funding to college programs across the nation. Cash-strapped university presidents face the real prospect of vacant campuses— and arenas — for the rest of the year. And while state and federal legislators sympathetic to reform efforts are likely to shelve college-sports bills this year to deal with bigger problems, prominent reformers are unbowed. Indeed, movement leaders are staking out aggressive positions and plans not only to preserve the past year’s momentum on athlete financial rights — primarily for name, image and likeness (NIL) — but to expand the battleground to include lifting NCAA restrictions on all forms of athlete compensation, protecting player health, and reducing the influence of athletics on campus as higher education confronts a devastating economic crisis.

The reformers say the crisis presents an opportune time to push their agendas, in part because the NCAA, weakened by historic events that threaten its exploitative business model, is on its heels in the midst of the pandemic, making concessions to academic leaders, public opinion and its own finances.

“They were hit by money this time,” says Vaccaro, the paterfamilias of the anti-amateurism crusade. “We had to have the biggest catastrophe in our time to make the point. They couldn’t run anymore. We found out the bonuses that were being given to athletic directors. We never paid attention, so, now we are paying attention. Why? Because millions of people are out of work, people are dying, and this entity should collect money?”

Others argue that the ethical crux of the reform debate still resonate in a time of exigent health and financial crises.

“I think people always care about fairness,” says Ellen Staurowsky, a sport management professor at Drexel University who has spent decades producing scholarship on college athlete exploitation. “If higher education continues to go the way it is going, if people in general can’t get back to work, I think we have an entirely different conversation about the fate of the nation.”

GOING FOR IT

Ramogi Huma, founder of the National College Players Association and a driving force in the passage of the pioneering NIL law in California last fall, says the impact of COVID-19 has laid bare many of the NCAA’s structural flaws, which often jeopardize players’ health and economic security. “This pandemic is exposing a lot of the things that already are wrong in college sports,” Huma says, “and it’s not a hard task to connect it all and try to go forward and improve things.”

An obvious place to start is player safety, says Huma, a former UCLA linebacker who earned a master’s degree in public health after his playing career ended. “College sports have a big challenge when it comes to health and safety standards — there are none,” he deadpans.

The pandemic response has demonstrated this, with the NCAA begrudgingly cancelling its winter and spring sports only after the NBA suspended its season. Huma pointed to televised highlights showing Nebraska coach Fred Hoiberg appearing faint and sickly during a Big 10 conference tournament game. The coach was hospitalized after the game, and his players put into quarantine, though tests reportedly revealed Hoiberg was suffering from influenza and not coronavirus. “There was no reasonable justification for him to have been (coaching) with those kinds of symptoms,” Huma says. “But the fact that he was there underscores the fact that colleges can’t be trusted to make the tough decisions when money’s on the line.”

Huma is now calling for “an independent infrastructure” to enforce health and safety standards when it comes to coronavirus and other infectious diseases, as well as several other safety issues, among them:

  • Heat illness treatment and prevention, in the wake of the death of Maryland football player Jordan McNair.

  • Best practices in offseason workouts, to prevent rhabdomyolysis, a condition where athletes get severely ill from overwork, which has occurred recently at Oregon and Houston.

  • Mandatory reporting for breaches of health and safety standards, with whistleblower protections.

  • Return to play protocols for concussions, as well as infectious diseases including COVID-19 and flu.

  • Sexual abuse prevention allowing athletes, such as Larry Nassar’s victims at Michigan State, “to have a safe outlet to get justice.”

On top of standards, Huma is advocating for tools to remove people in authority who violate them.

“Those are all common sense measures,” he says. “It’s not an exhaustive list. We’re not talking about health and safety standards to address turf toe. We’re talking about things that can cause serious harm and death. There needs to be unbiased standards and enforcement. You can’t have ADs spitballing what they should and shouldn’t do. It has to be independent, expert people in all of these different areas that have the final say in what the standards are and how they should be enforced.”

Huma is just as ambitious about pushing financial reforms in the pandemic’s wake. The NCPA put out a statement earlier this month urging the NCAA to enact emergency rules changes to help athletes endure the economic hardships brought on by the plague, calling for scholarship protections, freedom to transfer to other schools, medical coverage and elimination of NCAA bans on outside income from any third party source, whether from charities, jobs, NIL deals or boosters.

“You’re keeping economic handcuffs on these players, who may or may not have a season, may or may not have a scholarship,” says Huma. “I think America, more than any other time in my lifetime, understands that Americans should have every opportunity to retool, to get through this economically, by any legal means possible. It’s unconscionable for the NCAA to uphold these restrictions. And this is at a time when many of these restrictions were about to get blown up on the state and federal level anyway.”

Huma cited a survey showing that before the pandemic, 14 percent of Division I players reported being homeless in the previous 12 months, with about a quarter experiencing food scarcity. And he gave a hypothetical, yet timely, example of football or volleyball players being given toilet paper by a neighbor who was aware of their college athlete status. “That would be a violation,” Huma says, “because they would be receiving a benefit related to their academic prominence. That is ridiculous. That is inhumane. The NCAA is going to continue to punish a player receiving a free meal, or shelter or free rent? These are all NCAA violations.”

So, he says, “These are reasons not just to continue to address the issue, but to go farther than we’ve been advocating for on name, image and likeness, and to have immediate action.”

A GATOR VICTORY

Reformers got a major victory on NIL just as the seriousness of the pandemic became clear in the U.S. After much last-minute wrangling, a Florida name, image and likeness bill proposed by state Rep. Chip LaMarca, was passed by both the House and Senate on March 13, the last day of the legislature’s regular session. The bill, which substantively mirrored California’s first-in-the-nation NIL legislation, was significant in that it was set to take effect at the start of the 2021-22 academic year, almost 18 months sooner than California’s new law. In a statement to NOI, LaMarca expressed confidence that the bill remains a “priority” for Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, although there is no explicit timeline on when it will be signed. (If not for DeSantis’ initial reluctance to issue a statewide lockdown, it’s possible the bill wouldn’t have even made it to a vote.)

“It is fortunate we were able to make progress prior to (the pandemic), and that progress stands,” says Tim Nevius, executive director of the College Athlete Advocacy Initiative, who aggressively lobbied for the legislation’s passage. “I don’t think this will result in any setbacks.”

Still, pandemic-related interruptions to state legislatures across the country mean that many other NIL bills that were expected to pass in short order may now not even be voted on this year.

A bill proposed in Nebraska by state Sen. Megan Hunt was just days away from passing out of that state’s unicameral legislature — and had support from the University of Nebraska and its athletic department — before the session was postponed indefinitely on March 16.

Both the California and Florida legislation, as well as a Colorado bill signed into law last month, explicitly forbid schools from providing compensation directly to athletes. 

A New York bill, which would require universities to establish athlete health savings accounts and wage funds, each comprising 7.5 percent of their athletic departments’ annual revenue, is currently stuck in committee. Given New York’s health-care burdens at the center of the pandemic and its crushing fiscal situation, legislators doubt they’ll return to session this year, which would delay any movement on NIL.  Given the perceived loopholes and shortcomings of the existing statute-making efforts, Nevius says that athlete-rights advocates had been looking towards finding another state this year, where there wasn’t already pending NIL legislation, to “start fresh and propose something exactly what we want.” A former college baseball player at the University of Dayton, Nevius had hoped Ohio would be that state, but he says his pre-pandemic efforts to rally interest went nowhere, perhaps because of Ohio State University’s influence on state government.

In Washington, D.C., a Congressinal bill sponsored by North Carolina Rep. Mark Walker hasn’t had any movement since being referred to the Committee on Ways and Means 13 months ago. In December, Florida Reps. Donna Shalala, a Democrat, and Ross Spano, a Republican, introduced bipartisan legislation tasking an independent commission to conduct a comprehensive investigation of “the relationship between institutions of higher education athletic programs.” Neither bill is likely to move this year.

“During an election year with a dysfunctional Congress I do not foresee this particular issue being taken up at the federal level any time soon, especially with COVID-19,” says LaMarca. “College sports issues will continue to be on the table, especially as the NCAA spends money on increasing their lobby efforts, but the global pandemic has certainly put many issues on the back burner.”

That said, there was already scant hope that 2020 would usher in federal college sports reform legislation.

“We are exactly where we thought it would be,” says Donna Lopiano, president-elect of The Drake Group, which lobbies for academic integrity in intercollegiate athletics. Lopiano had been making the rounds on Capitol Hill in support of the Shalala-Spano bill before the pandemic forced the closure of Congressional offices.

“Our [2020] goal was to really educate the House,” says Lopiano, “and even if (a bill) came out of the House Education and Labor Committee, it wouldn’t pass the Senate. We would have hoped to refile it in January, hopefully with a friendlier Senate, and then go after it.”

LaMarca and other athlete-rights supporters say they hope that the NCAA’s Board of Governors, which is slated to meet virtually today and Tuesday, will immediately render the issue moot. Several anonymously sourced news reports last week signaled that NCAA committees tasked with making NIL reform proposals were prepared to recommend to the 24-member board to do away with organizational restrictions preventing athletes from earning endorsement deals while in school.

“There is an opportunity for the NCAA to do the right thing immediately in these trying times when everyone, including students, are trying to just make ends meet back at home,” LaMarca says. “The NCAA should expedite this process and use our legislation here in the third largest state in the nation as a guide.”

But it’s unclear to observers such as Huma whether the Board of Governors will do anything more concrete than funneling NIL recommendations to the NCAA membership for a vote in January.

“I will believe it when I see it,” says Hunt.

THE OWN-GOAL STRATEGY 

Even if the country is necessarily preoccupied by bigger concerns, reformers are confident that the plutocrats of college sports will say and do plenty of stupid, myopic and nakedly self-interested things in the coming weeks and months to snatch the American public’s ire from the jaws of an otherwise all-consuming pandemic. Oklahoma State’s tin-eared head football coach Mike Gundy testified to that theory earlier this month, when he insisted in a conference call with reporters that his players should be ready to take the practice field by May 1. Gundy’s insouciance drew a Twitter rebuke from U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., who had issued a series of “Madness, Inc.” reports last year criticizing the ways college athletes are treated.

Before Gundy’s foot-in-mouth comments went viral, there was the hackles-raising report that Clemson’s athletic department had told the school’s star quarterback, Trevor Lawrence, to take down a GoFundMe campaign in support of coronavirus victims, because it violated the NCAA’s current NIL restrictions. After the news was met with widespread condemnation, the NCAA announced that an exception would be granted and the charity effort could resume. If all that wasn’t enough to provoke outrage, then came Wisconsin AD Barry Alvarez, the chief executive of a $150 million athletic department, publicly admonishing senior Badger athletes who lost their final spring seasons to the pandemic to “move on with your life.”

All the while, in recent weeks, there have been numerous accounts of over-their-skis remarks, usually from unnamed athletic department sources, in the debate over whether and when to start the college football season. Media reports have included mindless speculation about summoning players to quarantined practices on empty campuses in the summer, playing games in empty stadiums in the fall, and starting a “regular” season in January — when Big Ten campuses are in deep freeze and elite players such as Lawrence would normally be prepping for the NFL draft. Little of this guestwork takes into account the fact that there’s unlikely to be a vaccine until at least 18 months from now, or, as the Aspen Institute’s Jon Solomon notes, the physical toll taken on athletes who would be made to endure two, full football seasons in a single calendar year. 

“If they were acting in their best interest, you would do what the world is trying to do to Trump and keep your mouth shut,” Lopiano says of the mercenary voices coming from the college sports executive class. “I have talked to some (Division I) AD’s, from some of the richest programs, and they have not yet begun to grapple with this. They are still in Happy Land.” 

PRESIDENTIAL POWERS

Another major stakeholder group, the nation’s college presidents, are in a much darker place, and that could create room for real change. “This is the window of opportunity that college presidents never had,” says Lopiano, who served for 17 years as an athletics administrator at the University of Texas.

In normal times, she says, presidential heads “are on the chopping block if they propose any change to revenue sports.”

The virus creates a different world, where in some cases the very survival of a university is at stake, and where demands to downsize bloated athletic department administration, coaching and infrastructure costs will be taken seriously. “If the institution is at risk and everybody has to do their part,” Lopiano says, “this will be understood in a context where it would never have been understood if not for the pandemic.”

In a Saturday online op-ed piece for Forbes, Lopiano and fellow Drake Group members Andrew Zimbalist and Gerald Gurney argued that an on-field “hiatus” in college sports would allow decision-makers to “develop a plan to redirect college athletics toward academic integrity, financial sanity, and athlete well-being.”

Indeed, some of these things are likely to occur even without prodding from reformers. The University of Akron’s president signaled as much in a video statement ordering a re-examination of his school’s priorities, prominently mentioning the Zips’ athletics programs. Akron’s money- and game-losing football program scored zero victories and drew almost the same number of fans last season.

Still, what constitutes necessary, let alone possible, reform is in the eye of the individual reformer, which, as NOI has reported, has led to disagreements on movement objectives and tactics.

For instance, Gabe Feldman, a sports law expert at Tulane, is less optimistic than Huma about the chance for rapid changes in the NCAA economic model beyond NIL. Feldman maintains that while the NCAA may capitulate on NIL, perhaps as soon as this week, they won’t roll over on amateurism.

“I think the schools have a more persuasive argument they need whatever funding they have to support athletics funding, and if they argued pre-pandemic that paying college athletes wouldn’t allow them to support the full slate of college sports, they would make that argument even more now,” says Feldman. “The other piece of it is while the antitrust litigation is going on, I don’t think the NCAA is at a point where they are going to erase their definition of amateurism or collegiate model. They may push it to allow third parties.”

And while the window may have opened to bold proposals, college sports reform is now confronted with new and emergent concerns as well. The economic plight of the colleges may be acting as cover for colleges to cut minor sports and direct remaining funds to football and basketball. “We are very concerned that in general athletic administrators are not thinking strategically and rationally about how to cut athletic budgets,” says Lopiano.

She argues that athletic departments should be straining to slice any operational expenses that don’t directly harm the opportunities or well-being of athletes.

Or perhaps that kind of short-term harm, whatever its motivation, is a catalyst to reform on an even grander scale. 

“I have tremendous empathy for Olympic sports, but to step back from it objectively and evaluate the business model that is interlocking between the college sports sector and Olympic sector in the United States is quite shocking,” says Staurowsky. “The notion that colleges and universities would be expected and required to support the Olympic model seems completely haphazard and at the whim of whoever is pulling the strings. If athletic directors come back and say we may have to cut Olympic sports, I would not see that as being a bad thing, because both models are flawed. The Olympic model is flawed and the big-time college sports model is flawed. Maybe that opens up another space.”

LAST-SECOND SHOT

Yet to be determined will be the reactions of the athletes themselves, who in this crisis, as in pre-pandemic times, have had little voice. Huma says he didn’t hear much from current college athletes in February and March, even as the virus threat grew and players were sharing cramped locker rooms and competing in front of packed arenas. That’s to be expected. It reminded Huma of a story from his own football career at UCLA.

In September of 1998, Huma and his Bruins teammates prepared to travel to Miami for a nationally televised game, even as the National Weather Service warned that Hurricane Georges—a Category 4 storm—was set to smash into the southern tip of Florida. “We all saw the weather reports,” Huma says. “The team was talking about it the whole week in practice.”

Not to worry, said then-UCLA coach Bob Toledo. “I know a lot of you guys are nervous,” Huma remembers Toledo coachsplaining to his players as buses waited to take the team to the airport. “We’re not going to fly into a hurricane. We’re going to make sure we get there before the hurricane hits.”

“That didn’t give us much confidence,” Huma says. “We were kind of looking around at each other, but no one said a word. No one spoke up. We were just going to follow, blindly. Because that’s what you do when you’re a college athlete. That’s why there’s so much exploitation.”

That football game was ultimately cancelled.

While athletes haven’t been heard from in any organized way, an elite few have already voted with their feet, with some high-school basketball stars announcing they will forgo college ball to play in the NBA’s revamped G-League, which is offering $500,000 contracts to select prep players. Other opportunities may exist next year with the Professional Collegiate League scheduled to open.

However the next several months shake out, the pandemic crisis has clearly redefined the timetable and the expectations for college sports reform.  As the NCAA backpedals on NIL, and feels pressure not just from motivated activists but from the universities who sponsor their teams — and from a general public whose priorities have changed — a house-bound Sonny Vaccaro argues that the moment of truth has arrived, unequivocally.

“This is the last chance,” he says, “for the NCAA to be human.”


Luke Cyphers and Daniel Libit, coeditors of The Intercollegiate, write Newsletter of Intent. You can reach them at a safe distance by sending questions, comments, and tips to lcyphers@theintercollegiate.com and dlibit@theintercollegiate.com.

Featured graphic illustration by Newsletter of Intent; photo of Sonny Vaccaro provided by the subject


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