Creating a Bill of Rights for College Football Players
Not only will Dec. 15, 2013, mark the official end of the college football regular season—Army and Navy square off on the 14th—it is the 222nd anniversary of the ratification of the Bill of Rights.
In the words of the History Channel (not quite on air yet in 1791), our nation’s 10-amendment Bill of Rights was “designed to protect the basic rights of U.S. citizens.”
The original version of the U.S. Constitution, which went into effect in 1789, didn’t protect individuals' “basic political rights,” making the amendments necessary to what has proven to be a comprehensive document.
In much the same way, modern college football is a pretty sweet setup, but it’s a scheme that has not done much in the way of protecting the liberties of the many athletes.
While college football players are safeguarded generally by the overall plan, there are gaps in coverage that leave the guys who provide the talent—at no charge to a multibillion dollar industry—exposed to unjust treatment on an individual basis.
So, what lofty words would James Madison (the first author of the nation’s Bill of Rights) conjure up in defense of the sacred individual rights of college football players?
The First Amendment
The Right to Reasonable Benefits
No regulation shall be made or upheld that limits the commercial activity of the college football player. These activities shall include all legal commercial activity granted a citizen of the United States of America.
The intention of the first amendment is to afford college football players the same right to make money that the average citizen enjoys.
While athletes won’t be paid directly for playing college football, they will be able to make money from the sale of their image or personalized jersey—from signing autographs, having a legal part-time job, etc.
The individual will be the owner of his “brand” as opposed to the university, conference or NCAA.
What could make this easier to swallow is a modification that mandates that funds generated while at the college level be deferred—by way of a chosen account or fund—until graduation or the NFL draft.
This issue has been recently addressed in the courts with the partially unresolved O’Bannon case, which, according to Steve Berkowitz of USA Today, is a “lawsuit against the NCAA concerning the use of college athletes’ names and likenesses.”
The Second Amendment
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The Right to the Cost of Full Attendance
A college football scholarship shall hereby financially include the cost of tuition, books, lodging, food and other living expenses deemed necessary to complete a full education until a degree is earned, without the need for additional funds. The set amount for “other living expenses” shall be reviewed and reset every four years by a committee chosen by the athletic directors of Division I institutions.
The second amendment is simple and has been widely discussed in the media: If an institution is going to offer a “full-ride” scholarship, the scholarship should cover all costs necessary for an athlete to complete his education.
This amount should not vary by school with the exception of factoring in a cost of living adjustment for different parts of the country. Otherwise, there is the opportunity to create an unfair advantage in recruiting for schools that generate more cash.
This change should eliminate stories like that of running back Arian Foster’s while at Tennessee. According to a piece by Tania Ganguli of ESPN, Foster—in an interview for the documentary “Schooled: The Price of College Sports”—detailed why it was necessary for him to take illegal funds as a collegian:
I don’t know if this will throw us into an NCAA investigation—my senior year (2008), I was getting money on the side…I really didn’t have any money. I had to either pay the rent or buy some food. I remember the feeling of like, ‘Man, be careful.’ But there’s nothing wrong with it. And you’re not going to convince me that there is something wrong with it.
To put Foster’s story in perspective, according to USA Today Sports’ College Athletics Finances database, Tennessee’s athletic department reported more than $104 million in total revenue from 2006-11.
The Third Amendment
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The Right to Reasonable Transfer
National standards and regulations shall be established and maintained regarding college football players desiring a transfer to another institution. Said legislation shall include a clause that allows transfer to any program outside of the origin institution’s conference. This legislation will hold accountable all athletic departments with a predetermined financial penalty due if violated.
The intention of the third amendment is that no player will have to endure what quarterback Wes Lunt was faced with when he tried to transfer from Oklahoma State prior to the 2013 season.
According to Chris Huston of CBS Sports, coach Mike Gundy blocked Lunt “from 37 schools, including three that were among his top five choices. Lunt eventually chose Illinois but was forced to drop other potential suitors early on because they were on Gundy’s restricted list.”
Though the restrictions were—after considerable pressure—lifted by Gundy, by then “Lunt figured it was too much of a hassle to reconnect with some of the schools he had been communicating with earlier.”
The Fourth Amendment
The Right to a Four-Year Deal
The only type of scholarship offered to college football recruits will be a guaranteed four-year scholarship. Renewable one-year scholarships are hereby prohibited.
The intention of the fourth amendment is to establish a national standard for the length of a college football scholarship.
Though—according to Brian Bennett of ESPN (via The Plain Dealer)—Ohio State and other Big Ten schools offer "guaranteed four-year scholarships," renewable one-year grants "have been the norm in college sports.”
The purpose here is clear: to protect athletes from having their short-term scholarships canceled due to reasons out of their control. This would be done by replacing the one-year deal with a guaranteed four-year deal.
Here’s a paraphrased version of what Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith had to say from Bennett about four-year scholarships in The Plain Dealer piece.
Players could still lose their scholarships if they don’t fulfill academic or off-the-field requirements. But the multiyear scholarship prevents coaches from running off players if better talent has been recruited at their positions or who no longer fit the team’s style of play.
The Fifth Amendment
The Right to Medical Scholarship
College football players deemed—by approved medical personnel—unable to continue to participate athletically will retain their academic scholarships until graduation.
The first of the three amendments known as the “injury amendments,” the fifth amendment aims to protect the scholarships of players who have been hurt.
According to a May 2013 article written by Meghan Walsh of The Atlantic, the NCAA doesn’t protect injured athletes from losing their scholarships:
There is also no provision in the Division I Manual to prohibit a coach from revoking a scholarship the year after a recruit gets hurt…‘There is no doubt there are horror stories out there about schools terminating scholarships,’ says Warren Zola, assistant dean for graduate programs in the Carroll School of Management at Boston College and a sports business expert. ‘It comes down to the ethos of particular schools.’
The Sixth Amendment
The Right to Injury Resolution
College football athletes injured in a school-sanctioned football capacity will be granted full medical insurance—by the institution which the player represents—to cover expenses incurred by the treatment of the said injuries.
The second of the “injury amendments,” the sixth amendment addresses the lack of a national requirement for medical insurance coverage for college athletes.
One of the unjust results of upholding the ideal of “amateurism” is that college athletes are not considered employees of the institution that they generate large sums of money for.
Because the college football player is not an “employee,” he is not granted basic rights such as workers' compensation.
College football players can get injured—on the job—and be stuck with the medical bills.
According to Meghan Walsh’s piece in The Atlantic:
Upon joining a Division I team, every participant must have insurance and undergo a medical examination before playing. But when it comes to protecting players, who generate billions of dollars every year, from having to pay unanticipated medical bills or ensuring they receive superior, impartial healthcare, there are no official NCAA provisions in place.
Thus, when a player is injured, nothing prevents the athletic director from refusing to pay related medical bills—which sometimes keep coming for years. Even for those with private insurance, some policies don’t cover varsity sports injuries, have high deductibles, or refuse to pay the entire amount due.
The Seventh Amendment
The Right to Safe Play
The NCAA will hereby be required to provide adequate research, ongoing investigation and application of safety measures to protect college football players. In the event that these standards are not met, the United States Congress shall establish a committee to investigate and remove the NCAA’s administration.
The final “injury amendment,” the seventh amendment is intended to hold the NCAA responsible for the safety of college football players.
In the latest version of the NCAA Division I Manual, the role of ensuring the physical “well-being” of the athlete is relegated to the institution.
From Section 22.2.23 entitled “Student-Athlete Well-Being:”
Conducting the intercollegiate athletics program in a manner designed to protect and enhance the physical and educational well-being of student athletes is a basic principle of the Association. In accordance with this fundamental principle the institution shall…
The manual goes on to lay out what the institution is required to do in protecting the athlete but does not bear any responsibility for the NCAA itself.
Though the NCAA does have a competitive safeguards committee, its stated role is to “educate and advise NCAA member institutions” rather than dictate the standards itself.
According to a piece by Jon Solomon from AL.com, Chris Nowinski—who has conducted studies with medical researchers at Boston University—says the following about “brain trauma” in sports (an issue he considers a “public health crisis”): "The players have no voice and money is being made around them, yet they’re taking hits…College football is by far the slowest sport to react."
The Eighth Amendment
The Right to Fair Representation
College football players shall be able to openly establish a relationship with an agent—at any time during their playing career—as long as benefits are not exchanged. The term “benefits” will be defined by a committee formed by the NCAA and NFLPA.
The purpose of the eighth amendment is to grant college football players the same courtesy in regard to agents that is extended to college basketball and baseball players.
According to Bleacher Report’s Michael Felder, football is the only college sport that doesn’t allow athletes contact with agents until after his/her final collegiate game (which in football is mere months before the NFL draft).
As Felder points out, the relationship between college football player and agent needs to be brought “above ground” for the benefit of the player and the system:
If looking out for the best interest is the goal, the NCAA needs to regulate, take an open approach to these dealings instead of giving the advantage to agents who resort to runners to recruit players prior to the open talks period.
The Ninth Amendment
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The Right to a Fair Trial
The NCAA shall be subject to the legal standards of the United States of America.
Though the NCAA can suspend players, declare them ineligible and wreak havoc across college sports, its processes are not subject to the legal standards we are bound to—and enjoy protection from—as United States citizens.
From an article by business, commerce and trade blogger Nathan A. Russell:
One of the biggest differences between the American judicial system and NCAA enforcement is the former’s use of legal standards. The legal standards in the United States are: (1) proof by a preponderance of the evidence; (2) proof by clear and convincing evidence; and (3) proof beyond a reasonable doubt…Only in criminal law is proof required beyond a reasonable doubt.
The NCAA enforcement bylaws provide no legal standards for guidance.
Though the NCAA, with its lack of legal standards, can get Johnny Manziel basically off the hook for the autograph predicament, it can also quickly hang Penn State out to dry without meeting the established standards of the law.
To use Russell’s closing thoughts on the matter, “We can be thankful that the American judicial system is more impartial than the NCAA’s enforcement process.”
The Tenth Amendment
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The Right to Fair Officiating
College football players shall be guaranteed dispute resolution for subjective calls that result in ejection and/or game suspension.
The NCAA’s passing of the new “targeting rule” for this season highlights the powerless position players have in subjective on-field penalties.
According to the NCAA, the new rule “requires that players who target and contact defenseless opponents above the shoulders will be ejected. The change increases the on-field penalty for targeting by adding the automatic ejection to the existing 15-yard penalty.”
Even though the ejection can be overturned by a required booth review, the player has little—if any—power in defending himself against the subjective allegations of malicious play.
According to an AP piece published on Fox Sports, “ejections from targeting that are confirmed by replay are not reviewable after the game by the conference or NCAA.”
This means that if the in-game officials get it wrong, there is no way for a player to appeal to a higher power when cooler heads prevail.
Is a half- or full-game suspension that big of a deal? Well, it may be if an individual player is building his statistical resume for consideration of NFL teams, where he can be paid for his services.