Another Case in Point for Athlete Rights

Two articles this past week caught my attention as they highlighted, once again, the hypocrisy of the NCAA relating to its attempts to improve athlete welfare and rights.

The first recounted how in an effort to loosen restrictions and penalties for athletes to transfer, the NCAA established the “transfer portal” in October 2018. The portal allows an athlete to apply for a waiver of the requirement to sit out a season upon transfer to a second institution. When the athlete declares his intention to transfer, he is placed in the “transfer portal” where the request is reviewed by an NCAA committee. The committee has the ability to waive the one-year residency requirement if it can be documented that “mitigating circumstances outside the student-athlete’s control and directly impacts the health, safety or well-being of the student-athlete.”

Predictably, as a result of this loosening of transfer restrictions, the number of transfers has increased. And also predictably, many coaches do not like it.

“It’s too easy to let the kids quit”, said Dave Clawson, head football coach at Wake Forest. And James Franklin, head coach at Penn State commented, “How do you have discipline and structure and tough conversations in your program if there’s always a Plan B, an outlet with no real percussions?”

But true to form, the NCAA can’t help itself in its efforts to retain control over their players’ lives, educational experience and athletic careers. As a result of the coaches’ displeasure, the NCAA recently voted to tighten those restrictions to make it more difficult to obtain a waiver.

Coaches always talk about players “loyalty” to the program. But this is not about loyalty. It is about control of “their” players. Of course, loyalty is never mentioned when a coach leaves at the first opportunity for a better job or contract. When athletes transfer to another school, they are required to sit out a season of play. Coaches, on the other hand, can leave for another school and coach immediately and often a higher salary.

Last week, there was another particularly alarming article by Paula Lavinge of ESPN that provides another glaring example of why the NCAA should revise its rules to, at a minimum, allow every athlete to transfer one time without penalty.

A recent survey of college athletic trainers, conducted by the National Athletic Trainers’ Association, revealed concerns on the part of trainers about college coaches having too much influence in medical decision-making. According to the survey, about 19% of college athletic trainers reported that a coach played an athlete who had been deemed “medically out of participation.

Further, according to the survey, about 36% of respondents reported that a coach has been able to influence the hiring and firing of sports medicine staff. And of athletic trainers who reported that happening, 58% then reported being pressured by a coach or administrator to make a decision “not in the best interest of the student-athlete’s health.

Those are staggering numbers!

They are numbers that clearly illustrate once again, that big time college athletics, particularly the sports of basketball and football, has little to do with loyalty or education. It’s about business and winning. And the key to winning is to control your “assets”, which in this case are the players.

If I arrived on campus and discovered that the coaching staff was willing to play players who had been deemed “medically out of participation”, I’d want to get out of that situation ASAP! And for good reason. I might be the next player to be pressured to play while hurt. Or, if the program had become so abusive and “toxic” as was revealed at the University of Maryland’s football program after the death of Jordan McNair in June 2018. In such situations an athlete who wants to transfer out of such a toxic environment should not be penalized by having to sit out a year. Further, he or she should not be required to explain or justify that action to anyone.

If the NCAA is so committed to education, then programs need to stop being run like professional sports franchises. If college coaches don’t want their athletes to respond to programs being run like businesses by thinking of their own welfare rather than being blindly loyal to “The Program”, then stop running programs like a business. And how can you expect a player to be “loyal” when his coach can leave the program for greener pastures at a moments notice without penalty? If players felt they weren’t simply “cogs in a machine”, and clearly playing a young person who is injured, long-term health ramifications be damned – is more than ample proof that they are perceived as cogs in a machine, then don’t run your programs like a professional sports franchise.

Meanwhile, the NCAA will keep talking about how they are working diligently to increase athlete rights and benefits and making the games (particularly football) safer. And coaches and administrators will continue to talk about how college athletics is about education and providing a safe, healthy well-balanced academic, social and athletic experience.

And then a study is released that, once again, highlights the hypocrisy of talking about athlete rights, safety and education while behind the curtain, reveals a that big-time football and basketball, and increasingly other sports, is not about those things at all. It’s about, business, winning and generating money. What is so striking about this study is how it reflects the cavalier attitude and lack of commitment of coaches and administrators to quality of life and health and safety issues and issues relating to athlete rights.

At the end of the day, the broad issue of athlete rights has far less to do about whether athletes can earn some extra money using their name and image or whether they get an extra $1,000 added to their scholarships. Rather, it is about the fundamental “Deal” that is struck between an athlete and a school’s and its coaches and administrative staff. The Deal is simple: the athlete provides his talent, often sacrificing his body to do so that the school can fill stadiums, win games and generate money in exchange for a safe, healthy well-balanced college experience and a legitimate opportunity to earn a meaningful degree. Cleary, the athletes are meeting their end of the bargain. Stadiums are full, television is tuned in and the money is flowing. If the findings of this study are even close to reflecting accurately, the control and influence coaches have over health and return to play decisions relating to athletes, it offers another very clear indication that the NCAA and college athletic establishment’s claims regarding concern for athlete safety, welfare and rights ring as hollow as ever.

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