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Ohio, Penn. athletic scandals prompt lawmakers’ call for NCAA change

U.S. representatives from Ohio and Pennsylvania -- home to major universities that have recently been embroiled in athletic scandals -- introduced legislation on Thursday that would pressure the National Collegiate Athletic Association to follow due process in investigating possible violations and imposing sanctions.

The National Collegiate Athletics Accountability Act, as the House bill is called, would forbid colleges and universities from participating in the NCAA and other nonprofit athletic associations or conferences unless those groups implement new rules that would protect the health and education of student athletes, along with following a system of due process when problems arise.

The associations also would not be allowed to prohibit paying student athletes stipends, although the proposed legislation does not go as far as to require universities to do so.

The proposal -- sponsored by Rep. Charles W. Dent (R-Pa.) and Rep. Joyce Beatty (D-Ohio) -- would threaten to pull federal financial aid from universities and colleges that continue to interact with the NCAA if it does not make changes.

When asked to comment on the four major ideas presented in the bill, NCAA spokeswoman Stacey Osburn said in a statement:

“Our member-created rules and processes are in place to provide a fair competition environment and protect the safety and wellbeing of student-athletes, a responsibility we take very seriously.”

Although the legislation includes protections for student athletes, it also channels the ire of sports fans who have angrily disagreed with recent NCAA sanctions.

Ohio State University officials have said they were stunned when the NCAA levied heavy sanctions in 2011 after football players were caught improperly trading team memorability for tattoos. And many Pennsylvania State University fans are still angry that the NCAA did not do its own investigation the university’s handling of child abuse crimes by former football coach Jerry Sandusky.

The NCAA instead accepted the results of an investigation commissioned by university trustees and last summer levied a $60 million fine, banned Penn State from post-season tournaments and bowls for four years, reduced scholarship aid for four years and vacated years of football wins, among other sanctions. Under pressure, university leaders agreed to these terms.

Dent said at a Thursday press conference that the NCAA should have fully investigated Penn State and given the university an opportunity to appeal. He also criticized NCAA’s investigation at the University of Miami into allegations that a major booster had improperly given football and basketball players gifts and other benefits for a number of years. In February, an external review found that NCAA staff members did not follow procedure during that investigation.

“We have such a hodgepodge of activity by this organization, where nobody seems to understand what the rules are,” said Dent, whose district includes several colleges, but not Penn State’s flagship campus.

The NCAA has been trying to rebuild its credibility and is undergoing what it says will be sweeping changes to enforcement processes, making them clearer and more consistent. On Thursday, new NCAA violation and penalty structures for Division I schools took effect.

It’s still unclear how the bill will do in the House, let alone in the Senate. With the Higher Education Act of 1965 soon coming up for reauthorization, there could be more such proposals aimed at reforming college athletics.

Beyond the handling of scandals, the legislation calls on schools to guarantee four-year scholarships to all athletes who participate in contact and collision sports, including football, boxing, field and ice hockey, lacrosse, soccer and wrestling. These scholarships could not be revoked “for reasons related to athletic skill or injury.”

The proposal also would require student athletes in nearly all sports to receive annual baseline concussion testing, the results of which can later be used in evaluating a student with a suspected concussion.

In introducing this bill, the lawmakers frequently pointed out that college athletics has grown into a powerful business-like enterprise that needs to be held accountable.

“Don’t be fooled. We are no longer talking about a small, nonprofit organization promoting the education of student athletes. Today college athletics are big-business,” Dent said. “This multi-billion dollar industry is based on the blood, sweat and tears of student athletes, participating in the sports they love without compensation while working to achieve a quality education.”

Jenna Johnson is a political reporter who is covering the 2016 presidential campaign.

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