Published June 26, 2012 - 1:36pm
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Last month the California Senate approved a bill that would force the state’s four Pac-12 programs to spend part of their athletic revenues on additional health care and scholarship benefits for athletes. Dubbed the “Student-Athlete Bill of Rights” by its Senate sponsor, San Fernando Valley Democrat Alex Padilla, the measure would also strip the schools of their right to discipline or restrict transfer requests by athletes. Pac-12 Commissioner Larry Scott and the four schools that would be affected—USC, UCLA, Stanford and Cal—oppose the bill.
Although called a “bill of rights,” the provisions would only apply to “athletic programs that receive, as an average, $10,000,000 or more in annual revenue derived from media rights for intercollegiate athletics.” This would apply equally to public (UCLA, Cal) and private (USC, Stanford) universities. Starting in fall 2013, the bill would require these schools to continue providing four-year scholarship support for athletes who are injured on the field. It would also permit an athlete to take a “temporary leave of absence” from school without counting against his scholarship eligibility.
The bill goes further in some cases, requiring schools to provide scholarship support to students who lose their athletic scholarships for “nondisciplinary” reasons. This provision would only apply, however, to specific sports where the graduation rate falls below 60%. According to 2011 NCAA figures, UCLA and Cal fell below 60%, and would thus be subject to this requirement, while Stanford and USC exceeded 60% and would be exempt.
The bill also orders schools to pay for additional healthcare benefits for players whose income and asset level fall below certain thresholds. The school must pay the insurance premiums for these athletes, as well as deductibles for any injury resulting in athletic participation for up to five years from the date of the injury.
There are also a number of new programs mandated by the bill. Schools must “adopt and implement” guidelines to deal with concussions, dehydration and the “exercise and supervision” of any athlete with “life-threatening health conditions.” Schools must also conduct a “financial and life skills workshop” for all freshmen and juniors.
Finally, the bill orders athletic departments to “promptly approve” any athlete’s transfer request “without actively or passively imposing any restrictions or conditions.” This means a school must grant permission for another school to contact an athlete and waive any residency requirements under NCAA rules.
There are many flaws with this so-called Bill of Rights. The first is that its provisions are not universally applicable. It targets the four Pac-12 schools, which means several California public universities are exempt while two private institutions, Stanford and USC, are not.
A related flaw is the bill targets a specific revenue stream—media rights—and orders the schools to pay for new benefits from only that source. This sets a dangerous precedent for state legislatures to micromanage university athletic budgets (or university budgets in general, for that matter). This is particularly egregious when, as here, the legislature targets revenues that don’t come from taxpayer sources. This isn’t even a Title IX situation where legislative restrictions are tied to government funding.
The Pac-12 and its California members also object on the grounds the bill would place them at a competitive disadvantage relative to the rest of the NCAA. Forcing schools to fund additional scholarships for injured or dismissed athletes could run afoul of NCAA scholarship limits, the Pac-12 argues, and the new healthcare mandates may constitute an illegal extra benefit. There is some dispute about that, however, and the NCAA has not publicly commented on the bill.
More problematic is the provision mandating some schools continue to provide scholarships if an athlete is dismissed for non-injury, “nondisciplinary” reasons. While the bill does say a school has no further financial obligation to an athlete dismissed “for cause”—subject to an appeal to the school or the conference—this language nonetheless opens the door for future judicial intervention. If a student believes he’s been unfairly dismissed, and thus deprived of his scholarship, he can point to this “bill of rights” as grounds for a lawsuit. Judges would become arbiters of routine coaching decisions, and some coaches might opt to keep a problem player rather then face protracted litigation.
Equally troubling is the bill’s mandate that schools grant any transfer request without restriction. As a policy question, I agree that schools should not impose such restrictions. But as a political matter, this is not an appropriate use of a state legislature’s power. The relationship between an athlete and a schools is contractual, and it is not unusual for a contract to contain “noncompete” clauses.
As I noted in an earlier piece, the uproar over transfer restrictions is largely a media-generated controversy. Yet that also proves the point. Whenever an athlete is denied transfer permission, the subsequent press generally forces the school to relent. The market can effectively deal with this problem without legislative intervention.
The Padilla bill is not yet law. The Senate passed the measure 22-14. A California Assembly committee will consider the bill at a hearing this week. But if the Assembly and Gov. Jerry Brown approve this “bill of rights,” it may spark other states to consider similar measures. Other conferences, including the SEC, could soon find themselves dealing with patchwork state mandates governing how football programs spend their money and deal with their players.