Watchdog Group’s Proposal Calls for Antitrust Exemption for NCAA

Washington — A college-sports watchdog group wants Congress to radically overhaul the National Collegiate Athletic Association, proposing a limited antitrust exemption for the association to help it constrain runaway spending in big-time sports while better aligning commercial interests with education.

The proposed changes—which include caps on coaches’ compensation and new rights and benefits for players—would come through a proposed amendment to the Higher Education Act when it next comes up for renewal, according to a 70-page document reviewed by The Chronicle.

The plan’s authors, members of the Drake Group, call for a “College Athlete Protection Act,” which would, among other things, restructure the NCAA’s Executive Committee into a more independent body with the authority to enforce Congressionally approved limits on coaching compensation and sports spending. (The proposal suggests that coaches’ pay not exceed two times the national average of pay for full professors at doctoral institutions. According to a 2012 Drake Group analysis, that would have capped head coaches’ compensation at roughly $550,000.)

The restructured board—which would comprise former presidents, trustees, athletic directors, faculty members, and athletes from all three NCAA levels—would also be responsible for establishing a revamped enforcement system in which retired civil- and appellate-court judges would be paid to oversee major infractions cases. In addition, the new system would provide players and others charged with NCAA violations greater due-process protections.

According to the Drake Group plan, the judges would be given the power to issue subpoenas to compel reluctant witnesses to testify—an authority the NCAA’s current enforcement system lacks.

An antitrust exemption for the NCAA, an idea that has gained momentum in recent years, would give the association the ability to make such changes as limiting weeknight games or year-round competition without the threat of antitrust lawsuits.

One of the measure’s more controversial requirements calls for the NCAA to run national championships in all of its sports. It currently has no authority over the playoff in major-college football, a situation that limits its control over the most-lucrative money in the game.

By controlling that money, the Drake Group says, the NCAA could ensure that more of it is used for educational purposes, including increased scholarship assistance and improved health care for athletes. Among other things, the plan asks the NCAA to cover the cost of a new injury-insurance program for players.

The proposal also calls for a higher academic bar for athletes, including freshman ineligibility for certain low academic performers, and a minimum 2.0 grade-point average on a rolling academic-year basis. (Students who failed to maintain that level would lose their scholarships.)

“It’s a serious message to kids that says, ‘Guess what? You’re here to be a student,’” said Donna Lopiano, a former women’s athletic director at the University of Texas at Austin and past executive director of the Women’s Sports Foundation, who led the Drake Group’s efforts.

Ms. Lopiano, whose group has been working on its proposal since May, emphasized that the ideas were still at an early stage. The group plans to distribute the document to more of its members and hopes to attract wide support within higher education. But she knows the challenges are great.

“Is Congress going to be compelled to act? Can we garner enough support from the educational establishment?” she asked. “It’s still too early to say.

“But we know,” she continued, “the appetite out there is strong to help college athletes.”

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