Llet’s be clear – Andrew Cooper is not a fan of the National Collegiate Athletic Association. A former track and cross-country runner at Washington State University and the University of California, Berkeley, Cooper’s experience as an athlete at America’s top universities has allowed him to take a critical look at how the NCAA governs college sports. As a distance runner, Cooper had plenty of time to reflect. And he thinks the structure, system and priorities of American college sports need a reboot.
Cooper served inside the machine as chairman of the NCAA Student-Athlete Advisory Council at WSU and UC Berkeley. Today, he is an athlete rights activist who sees a systemic failure in how universities and the NCAA deal with issues related to mental health and sexual abuse allegations. Cooper sees patterns.
“The problem is that universities have put processes in place and make empty statements about protecting athletes and students,” Cooper said. “Universities are trusted to self-regulate, but they profit from covering up sexual assault. There is a crisis in America around self-regulation.
“Universities care [about athletes] until it has a potential impact on their reputation and revenue. Once the allegations impact a university’s reputation and revenue, they suddenly impact an individual’s work. If your work relies on protecting the reputation or income of the university, you will do everything possible to protect the reputation and income of your source of income. Anyone taking a Politics 101 course would immediately realize that it is obvious that an institution would protect its own interests at the expense of workers or students who are negatively affected by an event.
And there’s a lot of revenue to protect. For example, this summer the 16-university Big Ten conference reached a seven-year media rights deal with Fox, CBS and NBC worth more than $7 billion that will see each university receive 80 to 100 million dollars per year. At the highest level, NCAA-governed college sports are a huge undertaking.
More than 1,000 universities and colleges fall under the administrative control of the NCAA. The NCAA has its own regulations and rules for sports on and off the field which often differ from international governing bodies. The rules of college basketball differ from those of the NBA, as does Fifa’s Laws of the Game football (one quirk is a countdown). A maze of regulations exist regarding amateurism (athletes are not paid), athlete eligibility, playing time and the exploitation of image rights. There is, however, no clear general policy for reporting allegations of sexual harassment through the NCAA. Universities and colleges are self-regulating, which, according to Cooper and the experience of many young athletes and coaches (as recently reported by the University of Toledo), often fails athletes.
“Why does the NCAA exist?” Cooper asks. “Not to protect the athletes. It is supposed to exist to protect college athletes and regulate college sports. That’s why it was founded in 1906.
Then named the Intercollegiate Athletic Association of the United States, the NCAA was born out of a crisis. According to the NCAA website, there were 18 deaths and 159 serious injuries during the 1905 college football season. President Theodore Roosevelt called on colleges to ensure the safety of football players and rules intended to stem deaths in the field have been established between 13 colleges.
Cooper points to Michigan State University’s handling of now-convicted rapist Larry Nassar as an example of how some institutions handle sexual assault allegations, sometimes at great expense. Nassar was employed as a physician by MSU and as the head athletic trainer for the United States National Gymnastics Team for 18 years. In 2018, MSU (or rather its insurers) agreed to pay $500 million to settle the lawsuits of 332 victims of Nassar, a list that included many young athletes. In 2014, a former cheerleader reported Nassar abuse to MSU officials, but the university initially deemed the doctor’s invasive digital “pelvic floor” treatments to be medically appropriate. The NCAA cleared MSU of any violations in how it handled the Nassar sexual assault allegations, and the university said the charges it brought in a cover-up were “simply untrue.”
“Larry Nassar was one of the greatest sexual assault trials in history,” Cooper said. “He assaulted hundreds of women. So what happens when someone in a position of power sexually assaults a student? Are they held responsible? Is the school responsible?
In 2021, after a five-year investigation, the NCAA declared that Baylor University, a private Christian university in Texas, had a “campus-wide culture of sexual violence”, after several football players were convicted of rape after incidents that led to the dismissal. of the team’s coach and the resignation of then-university president Ken Starr. Starr, who died in September, was the former US solicitor general who led an investigation in the 1990s into Bill Clinton that included his relationship with Monica Lewinsky.
But the NCAA did not penalize the university even after officials failed to report allegations of sexual assault against football players between 2010 and 2015. “Evident, was not a violation of NCAA rules” , the NCAA said at the time. The NCAA panel investigating Baylor said it could not issue a penalty because the university’s misconduct was not limited to its athletes and was part of a larger problem on campus.
“The NCAA refused to punish Michigan State and refused to punish Baylor for actively covering up [crimes]”, says Cooper. “The NCAA exists simply to protect the interests of the universities and the levels.
The NCAA did not respond to multiple interview requests and did not comment on how it handles allegations of sexual harassment and sexual assault in college sports. A policy document issued by the organization’s Women’s Athletics Committee exists and states that the organization considers that “sexual relations between coaches and female student-athletes have become a serious issue” and “any romantic relationship between coaches and student-athletes constitutes sexual abuse”. ”.
“A law is enforced by the government and a policy is enforced by the HR department,” says Cooper. “If your human resources department has no protection to speak out against the institution, it’s worthless. Corporate America follows the law most of the time because there is a risk of liability if they don’t. Universities don’t want to be held liable for harm caused to students sexually assaulted by a professor or coach [but] there is no monitoring. They can do whatever they want. »
It’s not just athletes who claim the NCAA, and institutions don’t always protect student-athletes as fully as they should. The NCAA’s own lawyers suggested it. Organizing a defense against a lawsuit brought by the family of Derek Sheely, a Frostburg State University football player who died in 2011 after collapsing during team practice, the central legal argument of the NCAA was that it had no legal obligation to protect athletes. NCAA President Mark Emmert later claimed that his legal team used “a terrible choice of words”. He added: “I am not a lawyer. I’m not going to defend or deny what a lawyer wrote in a lawsuit. I will state unequivocally that we have a clear moral obligation to ensure that we are doing all we can to protect and support student-athletes.
In November 2012, Roger and Cindy Kravitz and their two daughters Rachael and Heather attended a meeting at the University of Toledo with Dr. Kay Patten Wallace, Senior Vice President of Student Affairs at the University of Toledo and Kelly Andrews, the university’s senior associate athletic director. . Rachael and Heather were college students and part of the women’s soccer program. They were concerned about the behavior of football coach Brad Evans and believed he was emotionally abusing players. As Roger and Cindy recall, they brought materials to the meeting and outlined their concerns. Roger Kravitz remembers Andrews retorting that the university had received glowing reports about Evans.
“I can show you a box full of them,” Roger Kravitz recalled, telling Andrews. “Why are your children still here? Why don’t they leave if it’s so bad?
Cindy replied, “Because they didn’t do anything wrong.”
To the Kravitz family, the university seemed unconcerned about how Evans’ behavior was affecting student mental health. A few years later, the university would receive more allegations about Evans, including sexual assault. Evans was never charged for any of the allegations against him, and the University of Toledo said it had no further comment on the meeting.
“Non-athletes have no idea what it’s like to be a top athlete,” Cooper says. “It’s not a game. It’s like life and death. It’s a very thin line between being on the team and not being on the team. Being a scholarship holder and not being a scholarship holder. The pressure that college athletes face is caused by the multi-billion dollar industry that college athletes support, but without any rights or protections of any kind.