Student-Athlete ‘Bill of Rights’ Creating an Arms Race?

By Jake New | Inside Higher Ed | July 9, 2014


As the much-awaited trial of an antitrust lawsuit challenging National College Athletic Association policies limiting players’ rights to be compensated for their likeness came to an end on June 27, Indiana University announced that it had created a “student-athlete bill of rights.”

The bill promises comprehensive academic support, guaranteed four-year scholarships, and a formal “collective voice” in the administration of college athletics. The timing of the unveiling was not a coincidence, coming when there has never been more focus on the virtues and pitfalls of college athletics’ theoretic model of amateurism.

“We have committed to this extensive set of benefits and set it out transparently in writing, so that we can be held accountable for them by our student-athletes and other stakeholders such as our faculty and trustees,” Fred Glass, IU’s athletic director, said in a statement. “While no other school has done this, we hope that others will follow for the betterment of the student-athlete experience.”

The judge in the antitrust lawsuit is not expected to make a decision until August, but universities like Indiana, and the conferences they’re members of, have already begun addressing some of the very concerns raised during the trial. They may also be addressing their own worries, offering more in an attempt to fend off a movement to unionize college athletes.

The result is an escalating competition of athletes’ rights that some critics worry could have unintended consequences, including increasing inequity between men’s and women’s sports.

“This is now an arms race,” Kristine Newhall, a sports management lecturer at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, said. “Schools are going to see what each other are doing and think, ‘We have to do that, too.’ ”

In late May, the college presidents of the Pac-12 conference signed an open letter directed at the NCAA and the presidents of the four other major conferences. In it, the presidents urged colleges to take “bold rather than incremental action” to address the rules that govern intercollegiate athletics.

Among other changes, the letter called for permitting institutions to make scholarship awards up to the full cost of college attendance; guaranteeing scholarships for enough time to complete a bachelor’s degree; liberalizing the current limitations on student athletes who wish to transfer between institutions; and decreasing the time demands placed on student athletes.

“A loss of momentum at this crucial time could leave the field to more extreme viewpoints that seek either to do away with college athletics entirely or professionalize them to such an extent as to have the same result,” the presidents stated.

One month later, the Big Ten conference released a letter, signed by its 14 presidents, listing similar objectives – including guaranteeing four-year scholarships. That guarantee is also one of the primary tenets of IU’s new student-athlete bill of rights.

With many athletic scholarships being offered as one-year renewable grants, an athletic scholarship that lasts all four years – regardless of injury, illness, or athletic performance – is a rare guarantee. At Indiana, the promise will only apply to athletes in what are called head-count sports: football, men’s and women’s basketball, volleyball, gymnastics, and women’s tennis.

Allen Sack, a professor of sports management at the University of New Haven and a former Notre Dame University football player, said offering four-year scholarships is one of the surest ways to fight the “professionalization” of college athletics – if that’s the goal. Sack also sits on the executive committee of the Drake Group, an organization that defends academic integrity against what it considers to be “the corrosive aspects of commercialized college sports.”

When the NCAA created the one-year renewable scholarship rule in 1973, Sack said, it set college athletics on its current, more professional path.

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