Congress was asked yesterday to pass legislation guaranteeing student-athletes due process rights in cases where they are accused of violating the rules of the National Collegiate Athletic Association.
Oklahoma lawyer Lana Tyree, representing former Oklahoma State football player Mike Edwards, asked that Congress create a "property right" for student athletes in intercollegiate competition.
Appearing before the House Commerce Committee's subcommittee on oversight and investigations, Tyree was the first witness in six days of hearings on NCAA enforcement procedures to call for legislation.
She also suggested that Congress investigate some NCAA rules which she said amount to a restraint on interstate commerce as well as the NCAA's tax-exempt status as a "nonlobbyist" group - a category Rep. Jim Santini (D-Nev.) scoffed at because of the NCAA's "heavy lobbying of the subcommittee."
"We have to identify athletes as persons under the Constitution for the maintenance of due process rights," said Santini, who pushed for the investigation after two colleges from his state, Nevada-Las Vegas and Nevada-Reno, were placed on NCAA probation.
"They (student-athletes) presently lose their standings as citizens in the United States," he said.
Both Santini and John E. Moss (D-Calif.), subcommittee chairman, have indicated they would favor legislation to correct NCAA procedural abuses.
Appellate courts have traditionally ruled in favor of the NCAA in suits brought by students complaining of the lack of due process in NCAA investigation procedures. Witnesses at the heatings have defined the lack of rights as coverings the rights to be informed of charges, to confront and cross-examine accusers, to present defense witnesses, to have counsel present, to avoid self-incrimination and numerous others.
But the courts have said that the NCAA doesn't have to provide "due process" because there are no property rights involved. Under the U.S. Constitution, a person cannot be deprived of life, limb or property without a fair hearing.
Therefore, one route the Congress could take would be to legislate a property right for athletes to complete in intercollegiate athletics.
Edwards, who said he felt he had done nothing wrong, lost his senior year of college eligibility for riding five miles in a car while a high school senior with an OSU assistant coach and for paying for airline tickets purchased through a travel agency on a credit plan. The same plan was available to all students, he said.
After dealing futile attempts to defend Edwards, Tyree said, "The NCAA, when it tries a case, has its fingers on the scales of justice."
Moss, Santini and Tyree engaged in several verbal clashes during the two-hour hearing with Rep. Norman Lent (R-N.Y.), who has been the NCAA's chief defender. But they were most strident during testimony involving Clarence Wright, another Tyree client.
The NCAA ordered Oklahoma State to disassociate itself from Wright, a banker and a major OSU booster who was accused of giving a prospective recruit rides in his airplane and $800.
Tyree said Wright was never afforded a hearing to answer the NCAA's "outrageous, unscurrilous charges," and noted the student involved denied the $800 payment.
Pointing to the NCAA's findings of Wright's "guilt," Lent said Wright could have appealed if the judgment were wrong.
"Appeal to what - a kangaroo court?" Moss responded.
Lent countered a few minutes later, "The prisons are filled with people who say they're not guilty."
"And the prisons are filled," Santini answered, "with people who got a lot more rights than anybody who went before the NCAA."