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.


This is Newsletter of Intent, an occasional emailed dispatch about college sports issues from The Intercollegiate. You can:

Ready to commit to your college sports education?


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


The Intercollegiate is proud to partner with the College Sport Research Institute, an academic center housed within the Department of Sport and Entertainment Management at the University of South Carolina. CSRI’s mission is to encourage and support interdisciplinary and inter-university collaborative college-sport research, serve as a research consortium for college-sport researchers from across the United States, and disseminate college-sport research results to academics, college-sport practitioners and the general public. You can learn more by visiting CSRI’s website.

New Podcast: Ep. 16, Idaho's Canary on the Goal Line

  
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By Daniel Libit

Hello! Among the least significant consequences of coronavirus has been the halting of The Intercollegiate Podcast and much of the rest of what we do here. Sorry to say, but the concerns of/with college sports really just really don't seem to scale to the heights of a global pandemic, and we’re still trying to figure out how (and if) we shall proceed as before. That said, I had been planning to speak with my latest podcast guest just before we all began sheltering in place, when it still seemed inconceivable that COVID-19 would threaten the upcoming college football season, among everything else. His perspective seems only more salient now.

In the podcast’s latest episode, I speak with Chuck Staben, a virologist and biologist who served as president of the University of Idaho from 2014-18, during which time he presided over the Vandals’ historic decision to drop down in football from FBS to FCS. As Staben tells me, the decision didn’t seem as ‘voluntary’ to him as it has been popularly portrayed. The controversial move likely contributed, in part, to Staben’s ouster as UIdaho’s president two years ago. In our hourlong conversation, Staben, who did his postdoctoral work on AIDS epidemic, talked about how the current state of the world may force many other university leaders to reconcile their athletic commitments at a time when higher educations budgets are facing unprecedented crunches.

If you prefer, you can listen to the podcast off The Intercollegiate’s website or on the following platforms:

Stay safe and happy listening!


Daniel Libit is founder and coeditor of The Intercollegiate. You can reach him with questions, comments, or tips at dlibit@theintercollegiate.com and follow him on Twitter @DanielLibit.

Questioning Michael Cross’ Purposes

Is a Penn State administrator's athlete survey side biz an exploit — or exploitation — of college sports reform? Plus: What we found in Jayhawks inboxes after Snoop Dogg's KU shock performance.


This is Newsletter of Intent, an occasional emailed dispatch about college sports issues from The Intercollegiate. You can:

Ready to commit to your college sports education?


By Daniel Libit and Luke Cyphers

Last March, a modest-looking Blogspot website called "Ultimate Sports Insider” published a post titled, “Risking prosperity in college sports.” To however many (or few) of its readers, it offered these sage words about the underlying dark forces of intercollegiate athletics:

Systemic pressure to win, life-changing wealth, status, social media and institutional brand consciousness are powerful dynamics contributing to the current state of affairs. Yet each negative story erodes the prosperity of college athletics. It's time to use our prosperity to fix the front porch and rebuild the core of college athletics - holistically educating and developing student-athletes without exploitation.

The author of the post — and the creator of the blog — is Michael Cross, a man of multiple hats whose day job is as the assistant athletic director in charge of “new business development” for Penn State, an athletic department all too familiar with exploitation. Cross was hired by the Nittany Lions in 2015, after he left his post as athletic director at Bradley with two years remaining on his contract — presumably a departure not of his choosing. According to the private university’s tax filings, Cross had been earning $267,750 in annual pay as one of the top-paid athletic administrators in the Missouri Valley Conference.

But Cross has more than made up for the demotion, financially anyway, with what the kids might call a side hustle. Cross and his wife, Jennifer, co-own Princeton Leadership Services, an educational consulting firm that peddles a software product called Athlete Viewpoint, which makes money not from the sweat of college athletes — nor from their names, images and likenesses — but from their very thoughts.

The proprietary software is designed for use by college athletic departments in querying athletes about their experiences throughout the year. As we reported last fall, Athlete Viewpoint software is also sometimes used to gather, slice and dice data from NCAA-mandated exit interviews.

The company insists it’s all about the athletes, a position it codifies in its mission statement:

As athletics becomes more of a business, AV believes it’s critical to remember that students are at the core. Naturally, AV takes pride in collaborating with and supporting partners who prioritize the student-athlete experience. 

But in working to “prioritize the student-athlete experience,” a key component of the Athlete Viewpoint business model is that, in a metadata sense, at least, Princeton Leadership Services owns the expressed viewpoints of the college athletes it surveys. For someone who holds himself out as a “change agent” and “tireless advocate for the student athlete-experience” — and who publicly whinges about money-grubbing, status-seeking coaches and administrators ruining college sports — Cross’ extracurricular work begs for scrutiny.

While college sports administrators can, and often do, find ways to make extra money on the side, it’s unusual for one to be concurrently operating a college sports-related business that could conceivably pay them as much or more than their full-time jobs.

Through public records requests, we recently obtained several universities’ contracts with Princeton Leadership Services, which reveal the kind of cash Cross earns with this venture as well as some fine print that may raise red flags, especially amid the expanding debate over the personality rights of intercollegiate athletes. Conservatively speaking, based on what the company has previously claimed about its customer base, Athlete Viewpoint stands to bring in hundreds of thousands of dollars in annual revenue. Consider the nearly $35,000 in fees its services have generated this year between just four universities that responded to our records requests:

  • $3,995 from the University of New Hampshire

  • $4,999 from Wisconsin-Eau Clair

  • $8,000 from Illinois

  • And $15,500 from Rutgers, for both the athlete survey and a custom “coach/staff review” project

Each school also paid the $600 annual license fee Athlete Viewpoint charges for the “dashboard” access to the data the company compiles.

One of the software’s selling points is that schools who purchase it can compare their athletes’ feedback to the other schools that Athlete Viewpoint serves, to see how they are faring. For the company to capitalize on this feature, however, it needs authority over the data — the athletes’ opinions. The company pushes to control this information exclusively, and for perpetuity, although it negotiates terms with the universities.

For example, in their contracts, New Hampshire and Wisconsin-Eau Claire agreed to serve as joint owners with Athlete Viewpoint of the data gleaned from their surveys. Illinois’ agreement makes the school the exclusive owner of the survey results, but permits Athlete Viewpoint to use the “de-identified data” in comparative sets for its other clients. Rutgers, according to a contractual memorandum, at first consented to Athlete Viewpoint being the solitary owner of its survey findings, but later revised the terms so that the “client is considered owner of the client’s own data.” A Rutgers athletics spokesman did not respond to a request for comment about what triggered this revision.

Athlete Viewpoint claims its software has already made a substantial difference in improving the lives of college athletes. And the product no doubt looks impressive, providing subscribers with technicolor graphs and a numerical rating system for how likely current players are to recommend the school to future prospects.

A glance at Illinois’ exit interview report, for instance, reveals in easy-to-read charts that Illini players in 2018 were fairly satisfied with their coaches and decidedly dissatisfied with their facilities. There are also direct quotes from players that put some anecdotal meat on the survey-data bones. “We need more athletic trainers/student interns on our staff,” reads one highlighted comment. “One guy is not enough for 30+ athletes.”

The tidy presentation is no doubt handy for athletic department professionals in the ever-escalating recruiting wars, and the product seems to have caught on. In the past five years, Athlete Viewpoint has blossomed as a business venture, reportedly contracting with at least 40 universities, including Penn State, all while Cross has continued to be employed by the school.

In response to questions about how the university’s athletic department navigated the precarious path of having a staffer also serve as a vendor, Penn State Associate Athletic Director Kristina Petersen provided this vague statement to Newsletter of Intent:

After a thorough University procurement process, Penn State Athletics contracted Athlete Viewpoint. Athlete Viewpoint followed Penn State University’s RFP process and submitted all required documents. Any conflict of interest concerns were vetted through the process and were external to Intercollegiate Athletics. Penn State does not disclose financial information regarding our vendors.

While Jennifer Cross, whose LinkedIn profile reveals no college athletics background, serves as Athlete Viewpoint’s signatory and principal agent, her husband’s connections have clearly paved the way for its growth.

For his part, Michael Cross has not been especially demure about his business interest, boosting Athlete Viewpoint in recent on-the-record interviews with Sports Business Journal and the Wall Street Journal.

As part of the company’s partnership with AthleticDirectorU, a web-based content platform for college sports administrators, Cross has also moderated web video discussions with other college sports officials in his capacity as Athlete Viewpoint’s co-founder. For example, here's an interview he conducted last year with University of Chicago Athletic Director Erin McDermott, who also happens to serve on Athlete Viewpoint’s Board of Advisors

McDermott declined to respond to a request for comment about the extent of her ties with the company, but another Board member, Amy Sirocky-Meck, the Title IX coordinator at James Madison University, told us the position did not entail a financial stake. Still, there are potential red flags here, too: One of Athlete Viewpoint’s clients is Tulane University, whose senior associate athletics director, Charvi Greer, is also on the Athlete Viewpoint Board. (Greer did not respond to a request for comment.)

Athlete Viewpoint’s arrangement with AthleticDirectorU — which includes a series of “Inside The Industry” surveys and an “Athletic Director Power Index” — represents just one of the new partnerships the company has been able to forge in recent years, as its tentacles continue to spread throughout the college sports industry. Last February, Athlete Viewpoint struck a deal to collect athlete feedback for all 14 Big Ten Conference members.

In December, Athlete Viewpoint signed on with CoSIDA, the professional organization representing college athletics spokespeople, to conduct a salary survey of its members. The company also now conducts post-event participant surveys for Women Leaders in College Sports, a non-profit organization. Weaving a web so tangled as to make Sir Walter Scott plotz, Jennifer Cross hosted a panel discussion in December at the Women Leaders in College Sports convention, which was sponsored by AthleticDirectorU, and which featured Penn State Associate AD Charmelle Green as one of its panelists. (Penn State Athletic Director Sandy Barbour currently serves as the organization’s president-elect.)

Meanwhile, Michael Cross continues to burnish his reputation as a right-minded college sports reformer, having recently been tapped as a consultant with the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics. It’s not a bad situation for Cross, given his rather forgettable showing at the helm of the Bradley Braves.

For reasons that were certainly not all of his making, Cross’ Bradley administration presided over the dark days of the program’s recent history. Among his specific missteps was the hiring of basketball coach Geno Ford — who slogged through a tumultuous and win-starved tenure — and a much-maligned decision to relocate the school’s long-standing Red-White basketball scrimmage to a makeshift outdoor court on the banks of the Illinois River. On his current online bio, Cross boasts of having signed Bradley’s first-ever apparel deal with Adidas and asserts the cum hoc, ergo propter hoc claim that, “More than 80 percent of Bradley student-athletes earned a 3.0 GPA or higher during each of (his) last three full years as AD.” For what it’s worth, a Bradley athletics spokesman told us that the university is not currently an Athlete Viewpoint customer.

In an exit interview with the Peoria (Ill.) Journal Star in March 2015, Cross plugged his Ultimate Sports Insider blog and spoke of the advantages of being less constrained by his employment. “The demands of this job prevented me from getting my thoughts out to the public as much as I would have liked,” he told the paper. Four months later, he took the job at Penn State and, the following summer, launched Athlete Viewpoint.

In 2018, Cross was rumored as a potential candidate to fill the AD job at Buffalo, his alma mater. But he ended up staying at Penn State and, shortly thereafter, was promoted to general manager of the Pegula Ice Arena, the school’s home hockey facility, in addition to his other departmental duties.

It stands to reason that Cross would have a much more difficult time making a go of his business interest if he were, in fact, running an athletic department. And, despite not serving in the title role, Cross keeps finding new professional footholds — like the NCAA Division I Men’s Ice Hockey Committee, which he was named to last summer.

Whatever his purpose, Cross’ entrepreneurial venture is a critical reminder that just as the public should be keen to the mercenarism in college sports, it should also consider the potential conflicted interests in college sports reform. We wanted to ask Cross about how he might address such concerns, among other things, about his work. But both he and Jennifer Cross ignored our repeated emails and phone calls over the last week, in which we sought their input for this story. Perhaps, for the sake of Athlete Viewpoint’s prosperity, it’s best that the questions only go one way.

SNOOPING KANSAS’ ‘LATE NIGHT’ REAX

In October, the University of Kansas was compelled to issue a public apology after hosting a totally foreseeable performance by rapper Snoop Dogg at the school’s annual “Late Night in the Phog” preseason basketball event. The 48-year-old Snoop’s enfant terrible act included pole dancers and a cash gun that shot fake hundred-dollar bills, a not-so-subtle lampooning of the FBI’s college basketball pay-for-play investigation that had ensnared the Jayhawks. 

Speaking of making it rain: A few days later, we filed a public records request with Kansas, seeking emails and communications between top university and athletic department officials about the concert-gone-haywire. The university agreed to produce the records for the price of $449. Generally, we would pass on putting up that kind of scrilla for this sort of thing, but, as a great poet once said: “If the ride is more fly, then you must buy.” Plus, we stupidly put it to a Twitter vote:

(Pro-tip: when FOIAing communications of public officials from institutions notorious for charging obscene copying fees, make sure to specifically exclude any listserv emails the subjects might have received.) 

So, what did we discover on this exceedingly pricey expedition down Interstate 70? For one thing: how much Kansas fussed over all kinds of potential minor NCAA violations in the lead-up to Late Night.

On Oct. 2, Alex Reid, a KU compliance staffer in charge of amateurism issues, sent a detailed email to Kansas coaches about potential NCAA issues that could crop up around the 18 Jayhawks recruits who were expected to attend the event. Among the issues Reid reiterated was that any recruits who wanted a refreshment at Late Night had to pay for it out of their own pocket. 

“We will need a sign-in sheet of all persons eating and the money collected must be turned in to the business office,” Reid instructed the coaches.

Meanwhile, Fred Quartlebaum, the director of men’s basketball operations, and Paul Pierce II, another KU compliance staffer, went back and forth over the permissibility of putting streamers and balloons outside the entrance of Hadl Auditorium, adjacent to Allen Fieldhouse.

“As a friendly reminder, the July 12, 2017 NCAA Interpretation states that it is impermissible to arrange for a mascot, cheerleading squad, dance team or band to appear for any prospect’s campus visit as such activity would constitute a celebritizing of a campus visit,” Pierce wrote in an email.

(For much more about the flabbergasting world of NCAA interpretation requests, you can consult our Jan. 7 issue of NOI.)

The next day, Elisha Brewer, an assistant track and field coach, emailed the compliance staff about whether Kansas could pay for an Uber ride from the airport for one of her recruits. (Yes, it was later determined.)

And so on it went. Indeed, to pore through the Jayhawks inboxes is to see how much energy Kansas exerted in fretting over the stupidest kinds of NCAA restrictions. Although, after the fact, that’s definitely not how many fans and alumni came to see things.

“(O)ur Late Night appeared to be a gigantic middle finger to the NCAA when we should be worried about ourselves and how we are going to weather this storm,” one angry KU fan emailed Kansas Athletic Director Jim Long, the day after the festivities. “Intentional or not, the optics of Late Night could not have been worse. A 20 second google search should have been sufficient to know what Snoops appearance would be like (and I love Snoop btw).”

Kansas Chancellor Doug Girod reaped much of the morning-after whirlwind from beside-themselves KU alumni, who didn’t buy the school’s excuse that it had expected something more family-friendly from the gangsta rap graybeard.

“Pretty much 100% of middle school and high school Kansas athletic directors would know what to expect when hiring Snoop Dog,” wrote one fan. “Taxpayers money at work?  Perhaps you can get Snoop Dog to be a character witness for you in your NCAA basketball investigation?”

Another alum rued their recent “five-figure contribution” to the athletic department, writing:

I come from a long line of proud Jayhawks, and tonight I brought my 7 year son [sic] to his first Late Night with my mother. I am disappointed in myself for exposing them to this experience, and saddened that my once comfortable environment of Allen Fieldhouse apparently is no more.

A self-described “West Coast Parent of a High School Freshman” opined:

The first error in judgement was bringing Snoop Dog [sic] in on the consideration choices. Maybe here on the West Coast we get our faces rubbed in controversial poo everywhere we look but jimmny [sic] cricket you think you all would have a moment of pause before considering that particular individual as a positive role model or even appropriate in the sense of what he represents in his material or lifestyle.

An area high school freshman weighed in with an admonishment:

Please do not do this is the future and apologize to the hundreds of families who had to deal with this. Yes, I am 14 years old and should not be worried about this.

A number of email complaints specifically called out the misogyny of Snoop’s act, and how that reflected on an institution of higher learning.

“Shame on you for allowing this to happen in an era of the ‘me too’ movement and when campus rape is still such a significant issue,” wrote one critic. “This is a slap in the face of every woman affiliated with KU; the objectification of women, and in this way specifically, is inexcusable by KU. How could pole dancers ever have been perceived to be appropriate?”

You can read the rest of the disavowals here.

Long, the AD, (seen posing with Snoop the day before shit got real) officially took the public brunt of the blame, other than that which he tried to pass off on the rapper’s management. The following Monday, however, Long received a private vote of confidence from Reggie Robinson, the university’s vice chancellor for public affairs.

“Don’t beat yourself up about the Snoop thing!” texted Robinson, who has since become CEO of the Kansas Health Foundation. “We’re taking hits, but easy to overblow this one, I think. [Redacted]. Hang in there! Things will even out!”

By then, Long was sounding chill about the whole episode, at least among his colleagues. That same day, he sent a text message to Dan Beckler, his associate athletic director for public relations, expressing relief upon hearing the hosts of KU’s flagship sports talk station downplay the controversy.

“610 radio guys this morning were mostly good,” wrote Long, who gets paid $1.5 million per year. “(S)aid you know what you get with snoop and people that were there were not offended...took shot (at) national basketball beat writers…”

Still, the athletic program went on heightened alert in the aftermath of Late Night. In a text message to other department staffers, Deputy AD Chris Freet forwarded this explicit directive from Long: “To be clear, all of our marketing materials etc etc needs to go vanilla until further notice….is the swimming poster still advisable? No edgy social media etc etc….we are clean of the clean….”

Morgyn Seigfried, an athletics communications staffer, quickly chimed in: “I’ll make sure we tone it down on social.”

From then on, all was copacetic in Kansas — for a little while, at least.


Daniel Libit and Luke Cyphers, coeditors of The Intercollegiate, write Newsletter of Intent. You can reach them with questions, comments, tips and leaked drafts of inadvisable KU swimming posters at dlibit@theintercollegiate.com and lcyphers@theintercollegiate.com.

Featured photo-composite by Newsletter of Intent; Photo by Alex Korolkoff / Unsplash


The Intercollegiate is proud to partner with the College Sport Research Institute, an academic center housed within the Department of Sport and Entertainment Management at the University of South Carolina. CSRI’s mission is to encourage and support interdisciplinary and inter-university collaborative college-sport research, serve as a research consortium for college-sport researchers from across the United States, and disseminate college-sport research results to academics, college-sport practitioners and the general public. You can learn more by visiting CSRI’s website.

When NCAA Critics Clash

The overlooked cracks in the college sports reform movement. Plus: An update on Jon “Good Luck” Rothstein and a silver lining to New Mexico’s transparency cloud.


This is Newsletter of Intent, an occasional emailed dispatch about college sports issues from The Intercollegiate.

Ready to commit to your college sports education?


By Luke Cyphers and Daniel Libit

(A note to subscribers: Due to the length of today’s Newsletter of Intent, it may be truncated in your inbox. If so, you can be certain to read it in its entirety on our Substack page here.)

An in-depth investigative series by USA Today on dozens of college athletes who transferred between NCAA institutions, despite previously being disciplined for sexual offenses, could be expected to generate commotion.

The Predator Pipeline” certainly did that. The surprise was that some of the most heated debates came from an unexpected corner of the Twitterverse: an intramural fight among advocates for college sports reform.

Advocates for athlete rights, such as attorney Richard Johnson and former Duke lacrosse player Maddie Salamone, took issue with the framing of the series and some of its conclusions, while sexual-abuse victims advocates, such as Katherine Redmond and Brenda Tracy, took issue with the issue-takers. 

The social-media dustup laid bare a reality that’s little discussed in the coverage of the recent wave of efforts to call the NCAA to account: While college athletics is the target of what can accurately be described as a vital, maybe even historic, reform movement, not all reformers want the same things.

From those who worry about athletes coming away with too little from the multi-billion-dollar industry they labor in; to those who worry about athletes getting away with too much; to those who care about gender equity among athletes; to those fighting to subordinate athletics to the educational mission of universities; to, well, name your beef with college sports, and someone’s out there beefing about it, too—all of these factions are trying to inhabit what is, if not yet a big tent, a diverse and potentially unruly one.

“I don’t think we think that much about it,” says Victoria Jackson, a former college track athlete who teaches sports history at Arizona State. "We know there are these tensions and fault lines, but sometimes we just kind of assume everybody who is a college sports reform person is going to be like-minded and agree, and that is not the case.”

Tensions among these factions are surfacing, probably not coincidentally, amid a time of great hope that the NCAA is finally on its heels. Court cases have nibbled away at the underpinnings of the NCAA’s draconian restrictions on athletes’ rights over the past decade. California’s passage of a law allowing college athletes to capitalize on their names, images and likenesses (NIL) set off a wave of copycat bills in other states. Federal legislation looking to overhaul college sports governance has been introduced. A rival basketball league, which will pay college players a salary and allow them to make as much money as they want from endorsements, plans to begin play in 2021.

All the while, mounting revelations of academic fraud, sexual assault cover-ups, under-the-table sneaker-company payoffs, exploding salaries for coaches and administrators, and bizarre readings of the bloated amateurism rulebook have left the NCAA with precious little moral high ground for “the collegiate model” to stand on.

Not that it’ll stop trying.

At last week’s national NCAA Convention in Anaheim, Calif., the power-wielders of college sports gave various winks and nods at and vowed to deliberate over some of these points of contention. Scarcely anyone we spoke to is holding their breath.

Nearly everyone in this story — from the more conservative college sports reformers to the most nihilistic — agree on this much: the NCAA sucks, and irredeemably so. Most also agree that the current system of college sports selectively serves to enrich a small, elite group of rich, primarily white, men. Beyond that, in diagnosing the underlying disorder or prescribing its most effective remedy, it gets complicated.

Each new crack in the governing body’s armor creates different ideas on how to exploit it for the betterment of athletes, the broader university communities, the taxpayers who underwrite much of the college sports infrastructure, and even the sports themselves.

Those divergent perspectives can create rifts, exemplified by the fight over the USA Today investigation into college athlete perpetrators. But there are other disputes, as well, namely over the issue of player compensation. While name-image-likeness legislation has served as a major catalyst for the current reform movement, the California law and its successor bills make for “an idiosyncratic tipping point,” says Donna Lopiano, a former sports administrator at Texas and one-time head of the Women’s Sports Foundation, because NIL wasn’t atop the to-do list for most reformers and was often seen as a half-measure.

Real reform debates, and genuine reformer divides, more often center on whether and how much athletes in revenue-generating sports such as football and basketball should be paid — which makes sense, given the billions of dollars the NCAA rakes in from its TV contracts and tournaments.

“We have had lots of sniping, already,” says B. David Ridpath, an associate professor of sports management at Ohio University. 

The clashes between reformers can resemble — if not serve as proxies for — the kind of friendly fire one finds rivening the political Left ahead of November. “Using the Democratic Party as an example here, they have one goal, and that’s to beat Donald Trump,” Ridpath says. “And at some point in time they’re going to come together to do that. If they undermine each other, they’re going to lose out on that goal.”

Further agitating the movement is the concern that this opportune moment — in which public attention and bipartisan political interest have neatly coalesced around college sport’s shortcomings — is fleeting. How reformers deal with this opportunity, especially on the federal level, could determine whether any real change comes to college sports any time soon, says Ramogi Huma, founder and executive director of the National College Players Association, a nonprofit that advocates for greater player economic rights and health protections.

"It feels like the fourth quarter,” says Huma, “when everything is hanging in the balance.” 

Who are the groups and individuals pushing the current reform movement? What are their various goals, priorities, tactics? And where do those goals and priorities collide with each other?

To get our arms around it, we spoke with more than a dozen prominent or influential voices in the arena — or multiple arenas, including athlete compensation, academic integrity, gender equity, and athlete health.

We asked our sources how they identified their roles in the movement, where it stands today and what direction it’s headed, and especially, what kinds of internal conflicts could hinder progress in changing college sports.

We immediately identified one line of schism: Advocates who believe college sports’ exploitative economic model is the most pressing issue, and those who come at NCAA reform believing education, gender equity, or health and safety issues are paramount.

Of course, these concerns exist on a continuum and frequently overlap, with many a reformer in more than one camp for reasons that sometimes have as much to do with philosophical differences as they do with their professions (lawyers vs. economists vs. academics), personal connections to college sports (athletes vs. non-athletes), gender and race. Even among the likest of minds, there are myriad debates over the way to manifest change.

For example, the economic reformers harbor multiple (and at times conflicting) theories on how best to skin the fat NCAA cat, whether it be through the courts, legislatures, trade unions, or new kinds of organizing.

College sports reform efforts are as old as college sports, with the NCAA itself being founded as a means to quell the alarming death toll in football in the early 20th century. But it’s important to take stock in how rapidly the reform movement has evolved of late. 

In 2009, Allen Sack, a sociologist and sports management professor at the University of New Haven, penned a study for the Journal of Issues in Intercollegiate Athletics, which sought to “identify the issues and assumptions that divide reformers and reform groups.”

Sack divided college sports reformers into three categories: 

  • “Academic capitalists” who emphasize “the importance of the bottom line,” assume “big-time college athletes are amateurs engaging in sports as a vocation,” and “view extracurricular activities as equal in importance to what is taught in the classroom or laboratory.”

  • “Athletes rights” advocates who “assume that collegiate sport as commercial entertainment is deeply embedded in the fabric of American life” and “view athletic scholarships as contracts for hire, not educational gifts.”

  • “Intellectual elites” who “argue that highly commercialized athletics has a negative effect on American higher education” and “are unrelenting in their criticism of athletic commercialism.”

The contours of those categories have changed over the last decade but, for at least that long, the hub of the intellectual elite crowd has been a think tank Sack remains deeply involved in, The Drake Group, whose own history provides a salient example of how disorderly college sports reform can be.

THEIR CRITICAL FACULTIES

The Drake Group was founded in 1999 by Jon Ericson, a former provost at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, who had previously written a book, “While Faculty Sleep: Intercollegiate Athletics and Feel-good Reform.” 

At Ericson’s behest, the original charge of The Drake Group was to address the corrupting influence of college sports on the academy, and TDG’s membership almost exclusively consisted of faculty from universities around the country.

In fact, the group’s original proposed name was the National Association of Faculty for College Athletic Reform — or NAFCAR — but The Drake Group ultimately stuck, even though only Ericson was affiliated with the eponymous university.

The Drake Group’s “intellectual elitist” reform agenda, as Sack noted in his study, included proposals of replacing one-year-renewable athletic scholarships with those independent of athletic performance, ensuring athletes could pursue the major of their choice, and “closely monitoring the growth rate of operating expenditures in sports.”

In addition, The Drake Group served as a kind of morale booster for college faculty in the face of what they perceived as college sport’s encroachment upon its core educational mission.

“It was a whistleblower support group, to some extent,” says Jason Lanter, who served as The Drake Group’s president from 2010 to 2012.

But it was not exactly athlete-centric. Kenneth Shropshire, a former Stanford football player who is now CEO of Arizona State’s Global Sport Institute, recalls recoiling in attendance at TDG’s debut gathering when he was a professor at Penn. 

“There’s a photo in the bowels of the Internet of me explaining the Buckley Amendment to The Drake Group,” says Shropshire, who coauthored the 2017 book, “The Miseducation of the Student Athlete: How to Fix College Sports.”

“At this first meeting,” Shropshire says, “my first and only meeting, there was a discussion that we should disclose the grades of all these students and all of the courses they’re taking, so we can put sunshine on this whole thing. I was outraged. It was really not understanding the rights of these athletes.” 

Since those early days, Shropshire adds, The Drake Group’s thinking evolved. “It is a key player in the struggle,” he says, and over the years, the group’s reputation grew. It counted as members some of the country’s most prominent scholars in the critical study of college sports, including Drexel University sports management professor Ellen Staurowsky, Smith College economist Andrew Zimbalist and Richard Southall, director of the College Sport Research Institute. (Disclosure: CSRI and The Intercollegiate have a formal partnership, however CSRI had no editorial involvement in this article.)

But TDG’s core membership has never grown much past a dozen.

“One of the challenges is most faculty don’t get involved until they have to get involved,” says Lanter, who served as president from 2010 to 2012. “It is only when athletics come into play in their daily lives that they may reach out. It is hard to get starting assistant professors to join The Drake Group.”

While TDG would occasionally engage with the NCAA over its reform proposals, it regarded itself as a much more independent and unfettered organization than, say, the Knight Foundation Commission, which had formal tie-ins with the NCAA. By contrast, The Drake Group could exhibit a contrarian streak, hosting, for a number of years, a counter-programming convention at the sites of the NCAA men’s basketball Final Four.

Ridpath, an early TDG member who currently serves as its interim president, recalls the group’s creative, and successful, efforts to garner media attention, such forming a picket line in front of the coaches’ hotel at the Final Four and naming one of its awards for Robert Maynard Hutchins, the University of Chicago president who dropped football in 1939 and pulled his school out of the Big Ten Conference.  “We got a lot of press coverage,” Ridpath says.

But a decade into its existence, The Drake Group had little real-world progress to show for its efforts. If anything, things had only gotten worse on the academic integrity front, as evidenced by the University of North Carolina “paper class” scandal in 2011.

The Drake Group’s major turning point came in 2013, when Sack, then its president, brought Donna Lopiano into the fold.

“I was constantly and throughout most of my life a dyed-in-the-wool athlete rights guys,” says Sack. “I have moderated to a certain degree.”

Credit — or blame — Lopiano for his shift.

Sack tells of a come-to-Jesus moment over dinner with Lopiano at a Chinese restaurant in New Haven, Conn., when she proposed to him a Congressional solution for college sports reform — one she argued would require TDG to change its disposition from irascible sideline critic to productive change agent.

The big concession would be to give the NCAA a “limited antitrust exemption,” as Sack describes it, something it had long coveted. Lopiano’s case was that you needed a big enough chip to offer if The Drake Group ever truly hoped to rein in the commercialism of college sports, as was its organizing principle.

“It kind of gave up a little bit on the faculty,” Lopiano acknowledges. “We didn’t see how we had any power — the NCAA is this big, behemoth thing, and everybody agreed that faculty wasn’t going to stand up. The theory of Congressional change is you don’t need the masses, you don’t need a lot of power, you do need access to tipping-point people in Congress.”

With Lopiano and Zimbalist taking the lead, TDG proposed federal legislation called the College Athlete Protection (CAP) Act, which included a series of provisions aimed at increasing financial support and medical benefits for college athletes while restoring “the ability of national governance associations to combat commercial excesses.”

The CAP Act provided for college athletes the right to benefit from their name, image and likeness, an idea that had been championed for years by Zimbalist, and which has now taken hold everywhere.

But the CAP Act’s proposed antitrust exemption, however limited, struck a core Drake constituency as an unholy capitulation to the NCAA at precisely a time when the Ed O’Bannon v. NCAA antitrust case was seen as a game-changer. While Lopiano aggressively lobbied Congress to bring about the CAP Act, roughly half of Drake’s executive board — including Staurowksy and Lanter — cut ties with the group. 

Sack describes the fallout as “one of the most painful things in my life.”

“I was a pariah for a while,” says Sack. “They wouldn’t listen to me. They thought I was supporting a total antitrust exemption, which would allow the NCAA to get away from O’Bannon.”

Staurowsky says she has still not received a satisfactory explanation for what transpired.

“The Drake Group’s abrupt reversal from being supportive of O’Bannon — and, within weeks of submitting amicus brief in support of O’Bannon — to [then] echoing the NCAA talking points, seemed very puzzling to me,” Staurowky tells Newsletter of Intent.

Lanter says his bigger concern with TDG was how it began juggling too many balls — like head injuries and NIL — that he felt had nothing to do with the cause of academic integrity.

“Where is the line with the original stated mission and vision?” Lanter says.

These days, The Drake Group, whose motto remains, “We Are The People Defending Academic Integrity,” highlights 19 different “issues” of concern on its website, from gender equity to athlete rights. And there continues to be upheaval among its ranks.

Two months ago, Fritz Polite, an assistant vice president and chair of the sports management department at Shenandoah University in Virginia, prematurely stepped down as TDG’s president because of his concerns with the organization’s direction.

“I thought they were veering off into other areas,” Polite says. “I think we should stay focussed on the academic integrity piece.”

Lopiano is now The Drake Group’s president-in-waiting, due to officially take the reins from Ridpath on July 1.

When it comes to athlete compensation, Lopiano and Sack, who is now retired from the University of New Haven but continues to serve on TDG’s board, want reform to stop at the water’s edge of NIL. Opening a completely free market to athletes, they argue, will only further disconnect college sports from higher education.

“Athletes’ rights have risen to the top and there has been an increased acceptance of commercialized sport to the point where even academicians are throwing their hands up and saying, ‘Pay the athletes,’” says Lopiano. 

The Drake Group has been the main engine behind a bipartisan House bill proposed last month by Florida Reps. Donna Shalala — a former college president at the Universities of Wisconsin and Miami — and Ross Spano, which would create a Congressional blue-ribbon panel to explore a broad list of college sports reform concerns, many of which mimic the provisions of the CAP Act Lopiano pushed for seven years ago.

Huma doesn’t support the Shalala bill, because he doesn’t trust the NCAA with any kind of antitrust exemption, big or small. He thinks legislative efforts to cut coaching salaries and athletic department costs will have a perverse effect: ensconcing college athletes as unpaid laborers under federal law.

“I don’t see that as advocacy for players,” Huma says of The Drake Group’s lobbying. “It’s actually adopted a lot of the goals that we’ve been fighting for for a long time, but I think also, partly, it’s being used as a Trojan Horse to attack players’ rights when it comes to economics.”

Staurowksy, meanwhile, has joined a recently created NCPA oversight board, most of whose members, including Salamone and Victoria Jackson, describe themselves as “athlete advocates.” 

GROUP CONFLICT

In the current college sports reform schema, Richard Johnson considers The Drake Group and the NCPA as merely “marginal critics” of the NCAA. But few voices in this space are as demonstrative and, at times, antagonistic, as Johnson’s.

A plaintiff’s legal malpractice lawyer based in Cleveland, Johnson represented baseball players Andy Oliver and James Paxton in their separate NCAA eligibility cases, ultimately winning Oliver a $750,000 settlement. He subsequently published a 638-page article about the case’s significance in the Florida Coastal Law Review.

Johnson counts himself among the NCAA’s “outspoken critics” — who, in his telling, are the ones that count. Johnson includes in this category academics like Staurowksy, Southall, Houston’s Billy Hawkins, and Eastern Michigan’s Richard Karcher; historian Taylor Branch; journalist and author Joe Nocera; and former shoe company executive and pay-the-player advocate Sonny Vaccaro.

“Maybe ‘intellectually honest’ is a better way to describe outspoken,” says Karcher, a former law professor who has been publicly critical about the way the California NIL law was written. (Karcher served as an expert witness for Johnson in both cases.)

Staurowsky, for her part, chafes at the term “critic,” saying it plays into a rhetorical trap set by college sports institutionalists, like former NCAA President Myles Brand, who have sought to diminish scholarship critical of the business practices of college sports.

Staurowsky divides the reform landscape into those whose focus is “player-centered” and “institutional-centered.” 

"Efforts to ‘reform’ college sport by adjusting existing sport governing bodies (NCAA, conferences) are misplaced,” she says. “The structural issue is to create a counterbalance to the power wielded by the NCAA and conferences by empowering athletes with individuals who represent their interest.”

That’s what Andy Schwarz believes he is doing by co-founding the Professional Collegiate League, set to begin play in the summer of 2021 with a model that pays its players a salary and allows them to earn as much endorsement money as the market will bear. An economist who worked as an adviser in the O’Bannon case, Schwarz sees the new league as a way to offer college players full economic rights that the NCAA has resisted through its fusty amateurism model.

The PCL’s view is that NCAA “reform” isn’t the answer, Schwarz says, “as it will inevitably result in compromising in key areas. As a league, we're entirely focused on creating a professional, equitable option, rather than concerning ourselves with where we stand in comparison to the NCAA. We think we’ll get there first, and whether the NCAA ever gets there becomes somewhat moot.”

Schwarz may not believe in NCAA reform, but he doesn’t loathe college sports, either. “I think colleges should be in whatever economic market space they want to be,” he says. “Money is not inherently evil… I think college can and should be in this space if they can do it legally and ethically.”

Hawkins, who wrote the 2010 book, “The New Plantation: Black Athletes, College Sports, and Predominantly White NCAA Institutions,” likewise doesn’t seek the end of college sports as we know it.

“I see the good in it,” he says. “I have been in close proximity to see there is a lot of good being done. But it is an unstoppable commercial machine that we are trying to grab hold of, and a lot of the time a lot of individuals are getting ground up in this whole process.”

The problem is irreconcilable, according to Southall of the CSRI, whose advisory board features Sack, Staurowsky, Johnson and Polite. In Southall’s view, there’s really no ethically sustainable way to be a college sports reformer, at this point.

"You cannot reform something that is immoral,” he says. "I think some reformers wish that college sport was the mythology that the NCAA had created. And so for them, reform is controlling coaches salaries, (and) having stricter admissions standards so that the athletes are real students and not taking fake classes. In many ways, I don’t think some folks like the college athletes in football and basketball in the Power 5. I think there are some elements of class that are also elements of race or ethnicity in play here." 

For Johnson, race must be at the very center of the college sports reform conversation. Indeed, one of Johnson’s biggest criticisms of the recent antitrust litigation targeting the NCAA in the O’Bannon and Alston antitrust cases is that they didn’t sufficiently make a race case, highlighting the disproportionate numbers of black athletes who participate in college sports’ revenue-generating sports.

COMPETING INTERESTS

Johnson, who is white, says his sensitivity to racial discrimination has intensified in his latter years because of his marriage to his husband, a black physician from Jamaica.  

“I have watched how he has had to struggle,” Johnson says. “I have become, over the last 10 years, incredibly sensitized to economic power, civil rights as they effect gay people, and civil rights as they effect black people — and by extension other minorities.”

That is the prism through which Johnson says he read USA Today’s “Predator Pipeline” series and combatively took to Twitter to confront what he perceived to be its dangerous racial implications. (The series’ author, journalist Kenny Jacoby, discussed his reporting with Daniel in Episode 7 of The Intercollegiate Podcast.)

This put Johnson at odds with Brenda Tracy and Katherine Redmond, two advocates for survivors of sexual assault committed by college athletes. Tracy, who, in 1998, reported to police being gang-raped by four men, including two Oregon State football players, now leads an initiative called #SettheExpectation and has lobbied athletic departments, conferences and the NCAA to adopt a zero-tolerance policy for sexual assault, which she has codified as the Tracy Rule.

Redmond was a student at the University of Nebraska who successfully sued the school for violating Title IX after she went public about being assaulted by a Cornhusker football player in the 1990s. She went on to found the National Coalition Against Violent Athletes.

Joining the online scrum was Salamone, a former chair of the NCAA’s Student Athlete Advisory Committee, who mostly sided with Johnson. (Disclosure: Salamone is a contributor to The Intercollegiate Podcast).

The resulting confrontation, which ramified across several Twitter threads, was ostensibly about the practicality and legality of an NCAA rule forbidding sexual assault perpetrators from playing college sports. But if you went down the rabbit hole — and we’ll let you do so on your own accord — it became a deeper, more fraught clash about issues like race and gender.

As Shropshire notes, when the NCAA was forced by reformers to open up transfer rules, it allowed more freedom of movement for athletes, which includes more freedom of movement for athletes with bad acts in their past. So something seen as institutional progress may have created an unintended consequence.

It’s a problem indicative of the NCAA’s business model, one too often based on greed, says Nancy Hogshead-Makar, a former Duke swimmer and Olympic gold medalist who now runs Champion Women, which promotes opportunity for girls and women in sports. “One of the ways they’re greedy is they’re not willing to absorb the cost of bringing a sexual predator onto campus,” she says. “The cost will be borne by the women on the campus. That’s an externality that needs to be changed.”

Salamone and Johnson believe the Tracy Rule unnecessarily and unfairly targets college athletes, who themselves represent the ultimate victim class in college sports. Tracy and Redmond believe there is sufficient data to justify focusing specifically on college athletes who perpetrate sexual assault. Johnson and Salamone don’t.

Johnson also worries certain kinds of advocacy divert public attention from athlete-rights reforms.

“We have one gallon of energy,” says Johnson. “We only have so much to use and we have to maximize its effectiveness. If you want to talk about sexual misconduct, we’ll talk about sexual misconduct on campus. We are not going to take it down to a microscopic level to have it target football players.” 

Victoria Jackson, who ran track at North Carolina (and wrote her doctoral dissertation on 50 years of Tar Heel female sport history) makes a similar limited-resources argument as Johnson, but with a different target: She has argued that gender equity is less important than giving the revenue-generating athletes the opportunity to fully enjoy the fruits of their labor.

In a much talked-of Los Angeles Times op-ed she authored two years ago, Jackson decried modern college sports as the “21st century Jim Crow.” A white woman, Jackson asserts that there’s a zero-sum game between the Title IX activists and race-conscious athlete rights reformers.

“I simply can't morally advocate for more resources going to women's sports, even when schools might be out of compliance with Title IX — at least at Power 5 institutions, where I focus my work — because we have not been good allies,” says Jackson. “Title IX is great. But we can't be advocates for women's sports in a vacuum.”

Not surprisingly, Hogshead-Makar, who has spent much of her 30-year legal career pushing schools to comply with federal law under Title IX, says any reform that sacrifices women isn’t worthy of the term.

“I don’t think you can have reform that only seeks to protect one group of people,” says Hogshead-Makar. “It’s not just going to protect the athletes that are competing. The reform also has to have an impact on women being able to participate, and on sexual violence. I just can’t imagine any reform that wouldn’t have an impact on making sports more gender equitable on campuses.”

Redmond doesn’t buy Johnson’s notion of a scarcity dilemma, either. “Why wouldn’t you take on the NCAA from multiple angles?” she asks. “Why would you just focus on one area, instead of getting at all of the NCAA issues, sports issues, so that the NCAA has to take this on on a number of fronts?”

In fact, Redmond sees player compensation and sexual assault awareness as mutually reinforcing advocacies. Redmond grew up a college sports fan; her father played baseball at Nebraska. But she’s seen enough corruption of the NCAA and the system surrounding it — from boosters to local law enforcement — to believe it’s irreparable, and says the best way to heal college sports is to privatize it and remove the taxpayer subsidies NCAA teams currently enjoy thanks to their attachment to the education system. “I’m all for paying the athletes,” she says. “Because when victims go to sue (currently), they will usually sue the university,  and not the athlete himself.”

Paying players “allows a path to that,” Redmond says. “And it allows a path to privatization. That’s why I’m for it.”

Adds Tracy, “As an advocate and survivor, I’m not competing with others who are championing important sports reform issues. I believe there is room for everyone.”

In the case of Cody McDavis, though, that room may not be comfortable.

THE TWO-WAY PLAYER

Perhaps nobody exemplifies the weird intersectionality that arises from the reform efforts than McDavis. A former Division I basketball player at the University of Northern Colorado, McDavis became active in efforts to speak out against and prevent sexual abuse among athletes, working closely with Tracy’s #SettheExpectation campaign. But he became a national lightning rod early last year, when he wrote a New York Times op-ed, which criticized proposals to pay college players, and subsequently took to cable TV to defend the NCAA’s position on amateurism.

“Those are two definitely divergent opinions,” says McDavis, who since graduating from college earned a law degree from UCLA and now works for a firm in San Francisco. “I’m of the opinion that the NCAA is in the right with their stance on amateurism, and in the wrong in their lack of having a stance at all on sexual-violence prevention and policies.”

Although the NCAA has no doubt found McDavis’s friendly voice useful — having featured him in several promotional video clips over the years — McDavis rejects the idea that he is a tool for the status quo.

“I don’t have a blind support for the association,” he says. “I think it does good things and I’m willing to look at it objectively. But when I came out with my stance on pay-for-play, and people read it, they made sure I knew they were against it. I know what it’s like to put an opinion that ruffles feathers. People will come out in droves to make sure that I’m aware that they think my opinion is asinine. I have not had a single response like that to my advocacy in calling for the NCAA to reform its sexual violence policy. Not a single one. It’s been universal support or just crickets.”

McDavis says his background informs both positions. Raised by a single mother, he says he saw family members cope with sexual violence. And growing up poor, he says the basketball scholarship changed his life. “I had about $1,000 a month given to me in a stipend, and I pocketed about $300 of that after taking care of rent (and) food,” he says. “The rest, I didn’t need it—so it went into a savings account, every month that I was in college.”

According to McDavis, he graduated with $10,000 in the bank.

“I came to see what you can get out of college if you appreciate it,” he says.

Some of McDavis’ critics have accused him of selling out to the NCAA, or of having something akin to Marx’s “false consciousness” about player exploitation. McDavis argues the real falsity is allowing commercialism to trump education, and believing that even more commercialism, this time from the players’ side, will make things better.

“The truth is when you pay student athletes, you are doubling down on the idea that you are there to win, to play sports,” says McDavis. “You can’t pay someone to be a great athlete and expect them to be excellent at anything else if all their incentives are in athletics.”

In an interview with NOI, McDavis gave a sanguine accounting of his past collisions with athlete-rights reformers. “I don’t disrespect or take anything away from other opinions,” he says. “I just disagree, and that’s OK. That’s where change happens. If everybody’s in agreement, you’re doing something wrong.”

That sanguineness, however, may bely the tumult that McDavis has been part of in recent years, while jousting online, sometimes quite bitterly, with pay-the-player proponents. His social-media sparring partners have included Ridpath, Salamone, ESPN announcer Jay Bilas, law professor Marc Edelman and Schwarz, who was compelled to turn one of their Twitter tiffs into a multi-part blog series. McDavis has more recently made his Twitter private, citing personal reasons.

Meanwhile, misgivings about McDavis have sometimes redounded to Tracy.

“I think it totally discredits her,” says Salamone. “On the one hand, you are crafting a rule that specifically targets athletes, ignoring the fact there are sexual assaulters and perpetrators who are not athletes. And you are aligning with someone who is adopting some of the NCAA nonsense and excuses [on amateurism].”

Tracy says she has not sufficiently researched the athlete compensation issue to “form a responsible opinion” and has no intention to stake one out publicly.

Salamone adds: “What annoyed me about this [Twitter] conversation is people on the same side of the cause — Brenda and I want the same thing: we want fewer to be hurt; we want fewer victims; the system to run fairly; and for athletes to be given a good chance and protected; and for people to be protected — when advocates are fighting each other, it is so pointless.”

GAME THEORY

Can competing ideas among reformers be sufficiently resolved to make the moment count? That remains an open question.

Shropshire and Hogshead-Makar both point to an original sin baked into American athletics that makes it so resistant to reform: the fractured nature of the system. 

“Every other country has a minister of sport,” says Hogshead-Makar. “And we don’t.”

The U.S., she says, could be like other nations who have “a holistic look: What’s the best way to nurture talent, what’s the best way to make a healthy population (allowing) everybody to participate, what’s the best bang for the buck?”

Instead, with no single entity governing national sports, and with two of the most popular sports — football and basketball — enmeshed in the higher-education system, the governance resembles a collection of feudal fiefs often at war with one another. NCAA policies look awful, as do national Olympic committee policies, and state high-school policies, and local travel-team policies — if those even exist.

That’s why you can expect more discord, and shifting alliances, in the coming years as reformers attempt to change college sports. Consider the Shalala bill. The legislation authorizes an independent federal commission to study college athletics, which seems agreeable enough, but which some reformers fret might be the first step in a slow, bureaucratic death march to nowhere.

There are the debates over what such a commission should study: Both the NCPA and The Drake Group support NIL protections for athletes, but those like Zimbalist believe NIL must be regulated to prevent abuses, e.g., a booster paying a recruit $50,000 for NIL in return for a luxury stadium suite from the college sports program. Huma and the NCPA, on the other hand, want no legal caps on athlete earnings, and fear the college adminstrators marshalling their nationwide lobbying power to game the federal debate, so that NCAA rules, including limits on athlete compensation, are turned into the law of the land.

Like Huma, Redmond doesn’t agree with preserving NCAA amateurism, but she helped write TDG’s sexual-abuse policy.

“It lays the framework for basically forcing the NCAA or athletic departments to work in that area,” she says. “That’s not currently happening. Is it a cure-all? No, because it doesn’t get at the system, but it cracks the door open to legislation that will.”

Ridpath says the NCAA “could be brought down tomorrow” if players in the Power 5 conferences went on a general strike, and he believes societal changes make that a real possibility, “Athletes now as opposed to when I was growing up, they all know each other,” Ridpath says. “They can stay in touch for free on social media. When I was growing up you didn’t talk to rival athletes. Now these athletes talk to each other and they’re starting to realize collectively the voice they have. I give Ramogi a ton of credit.”

Ridpath points to the Missouri football team in 2015, which forced the resignation of the school’s president, then under fire for incidents of on-campus racism, by declaring they would not take the field in a regular-season game.

Karcher concurs.

“I've come to the point where I realize that any meaningful reform has to come from players taking the initiative to do something about it, as Billy Hawkins has talked about long before me, which certainly wouldn't happen without a major fight,” he says. “But Curt Flood did it. Because the football players in the Power 5 conferences possess incredible economic power, they actually have the ability to change the system.”

Huma knows this as well as anyone, but he also knows how difficult this simple-sounding solution is. Players who step out of line with their schools and speak up risk losing everything — scholarships, stipends, and in the cases of elite athletes, a chance to advance to the pros.

“That’s a hard dynamic,” Huma says. “I could dream up personally a million ways for college athletes to get involved and be active. But the reality is players typically don’t feel comfortable doing that. And that’s why in all these years you can look back and see how rare it is.”

Power resists change, as everyone working to reform college sports is well aware, and there’s rarely consensus on the best way to reform a cultural powerhouse like college sports. But despite the disagreements, change is happening nonetheless.

“There’s always a potential for divisiveness to hurt any reform movement,” says Zimbalist, “but I think at this point, the idea of NIL reform has penetrated into both political parties, and it’s penetrated from the radical left into the center of the political spectrum.”

And NIL may be the start of bigger reform, however one defines the term. As with so much else, we’ll know so much more come November. -30-

SCOOP: NYT BIDS “GOOD LUCK” TO ROTHSTEIN

The New York Times has ended its weekly college basketball column with CBS Sports’ Jon Rothstein, NOI has learned, following our revelations last month of his hyper-friendly texting regimen with college basketball coaches.

On Dec. 17, we published screen grabs from a month’s worth of text messages between Rothstein and a randomly chosen sampling of eight D-I coaches, in which Rothstein wished them “good luck” before each of their games. The texts were obtained through FOIA requests we made to a couple dozen public universities.

“We experimented with a weekly report on college basketball but it did not find much of an audience and we discontinued it,” says Randal Archibold, the Times sports editor. Archibold says that the paper’s arrangement with Rothstein was always “informal” and that he was never placed under contract.

Rothstein began writing a weekly column for the Times on Nov. 8, but his byline hadn’t appeared in the newspaper (or on NYTimes.com) since his Dec. 16 piece, “College Basketball Is Wide Open, And Could Stay That Way,” which ran the day before NOI unveiled his SMS missives.

Although this curious journalism marriage has been annulled, Rothstein’s Twitter bio still anoints him as: “Contributor: NY Times.”

THANK YOU, SORT OF, NEW MEXICO

Since we last published, the University of New Mexico formally settled a public record’s lawsuit Daniel filed, by agreeing to pay $30,000 plus legal fees.

Daniel’s suit stemmed from UNM’s denial of several records requests he had made in late 2018, while still at the wheel of NMFishbowl.com. The university claimed Daniel’s requests lacked “reasonable particularity,” which was nonsense, as are far too many claimed exemptions by university records custodians.

But alas, some public good has come from it: We’re putting that full 30K to work in furtherance of The Intercollegiate’s journalism and awaiting our next opportunity to take a transparency-avoiding public institution to court. We’re open to suggestions. We’re also grateful for — and ultimately reliant on— financial contributions that aren’t the result of court-ordered mediation. 


Luke Cyphers and Daniel Libit, coeditors of The Intercollegiate, write Newsletter of Intent. You can reach them with questions, comments, and tips at lcyphers@theintercollegiate.com and dlibit@theintercollegiate.com.

Featured photo by Bogdan Karlenko / Unsplash. Photo of The Drake Group’s 1999 meeting courtesy of The Drake Group. Photos of Donna Lopiano, Richard Johnson and Brenda Tracy provided by the subjects.

New Podcast: Ep. 10, Heretics in the Temple (Baton Rouge Edition)

  
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-1:12:24

By Daniel Libit

In our latest episode of The Intercollegiate Podcast, I speak with LSU journalism chair Bob Mann, an outspoken campus critic of what he describes as the discrepant financial priorities Louisianans place on college football and higher education.

PLUS: In our College Sport Research Institute segment, Peter Schroeder, an associate professor at the University of the Pacific, tells me about his academic work seeking a model by which to evaluate a college athletic department’s “culture.”

You can listen to the full episode here or, better yet, subscribe and download via the following podcasting apps:

As I mentioned on last week’s podcast, Luke Cyphers and I have decided to unbind ourselves from a weekly publishing schedule for our reported issues of Newsletter of Intent, in order for us to make sure we’re delivering those goods when we have them in hand. (We’ll have one next week).

Happy listening.


The Intercollegiate is proud to partner with the College Sport Research Institute, an academic center housed within the Department of Sport and Entertainment Management at the University of South Carolina. CSRI’s mission is to encourage and support interdisciplinary and inter-university collaborative college-sport research, serve as a research consortium for college-sport researchers from across the United States, and disseminate college-sport research results to academics, college-sport practitioners and the general public. You can learn more by visiting CSRI’s website.

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