Land let’s be clear – Andrew Cooper is no fan of the National 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 given him a keen eye for how the NCAA regulates college sports. As a long-distance runner, Cooper had plenty of time to think. And he believes that the structure, system and priorities of US college sports need a reboot.
Cooper served inside the machine as president 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 the way universities and the NCAA handle issues related to mental health and sexual abuse allegations. Cooper sees patterns.
“The issue is that universities have processes in place and make empty claims about protecting athletes and protecting students,” Cooper says. “Universities are trusted to regulate themselves but benefit from covering up sexual assault. There is a crisis in America around self-government.
“The universities care [about athletes] until it could affect their reputation and income. When allegations affect a university’s reputation and revenue, it suddenly affects a person’s job. If your job depends on protecting the reputation or income of the university, you will make every effort to protect the reputation and income of your source of income. Anyone who took a Policy 101 course would immediately realize that it is clear that an institution would protect its own interests at the expense of workers or students who are negatively impacted by an event.”
And there is a lot of income to protect. For example, this summer the 16-university Big Ten conference agreed a seven-year media rights deal with Fox, CBS and NBC worth more than $7bn that will see each university receive $80m-$100m per year. At the highest level, college sports is a huge business governed by the NCAA.
Over 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 that often differ from international governing bodies. College basketball rules differ from the NBA, and so does soccer from the FIFA laws of the game (one quirk is a custodial countdown clock). There is a labyrinth of regulations regarding amateurism (athletes are not paid a salary), athlete eligibility, playing time, and pursuit of image rights. However, there is no clear umbrella policy for reporting allegations of sexual harassment through the NCAA. Universities and colleges are self-governing and, to Cooper’s point and the experience of many young athletes and coaches (as recently reported at the University of Toledo), athletes often fail.
“Why does the NCAA exist?” Cooper asks. “Not protecting athletes. It is supposed to exist to protect college athletes and regulate college sports. That is why it was founded in 1906.”
Then named the United States Intercollegiate Athletic Association, 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 asked colleges to address the safety of football players and established rules among 13 proposed colleges to prevent deaths on the field.
Cooper points to Michigan State University’s handling of now-convicted rapist Larry Nassar as an example of how some institutions deal with sexual assault allegations, sometimes at great cost. Nassar was employed as a physician at USC and as the head athletic trainer for the United States Gymnastics national team for 18 years. In 2018, USC (or, rather, its insurers) agreed to pay $500m to settle lawsuits from 332 of Nassar’s victims, a list that included many young athletes. In 2014 a former cheerleader reported abuse by Nassar to USC officials, but the university initially ruled that the doctor’s invasive digital “pelvic floor” treatments were medically appropriate. The NCAA cleared USC of any wrongdoing in how it handled Nassar’s sexual assault allegations, and the university has said that the allegations it covered up are “simply false”.
“Larry Nassar was one of the biggest sexual assault trials in history,” says Cooper. “He attacked hundreds of women. So what happens when someone in power sexually assaults a student? Are they accountable? Is the school liable?”
In 2021, after a five-year investigation, the NCAA said Baylor University, a private Christian university in Texas, had a “campus-wide culture of sexual violence” after several football players were convicted of rape following an incident that led to it. the shot. team coach and university president Ken Starr resigns. Starr, who died in September, was the former US attorney general who led a 1990s investigation into Bill Clinton that included his relationship with Monica Lewinsky.
But the NCAA did not even punish the university after officials failed to report claims of sexual assault against the football players between 2010 and 2015. “Baylor has acknowledged moral and ethical failings in its handling of violence sexual and interpersonal on campus but he insisted on those failures, however. egregious, not violations of NCAA rules,” the NCAA said at the time. The NCAA committee investigating Baylor said it could not punish because the university’s failures were not limited to its athletes and were part of a broader problem on campus.
“The NCAA refused to penalize Michigan State and refused to penalize Baylor who actively covered [crimes],” says Cooper. “The NCAA is only there to protect universities and league interests.”
The NCAA did not respond to multiple interview requests and did not comment on how it handles allegations of sexual harassment and sexual assault within college sports. It contains a policy paper issued by the organization’s Women’s Athletics Committee which established that the organization considers “sexual relations between coaches and student-athletes to be a serious problem” and that any lewd or sexual relations between coaches and student-athletes. “.
“The government enforces law and the HR department enforces policy,” says Cooper. “If your human resources department has no defense to speak out against the institution it is worth it. Corporate America follows the law most of the time because there is a risk of liability if they don’t. Universities do not want to be liable for damages for students who are sexually assaulted by a professor or coach [but] there is no supervision. They can do whatever they want.”
The NCAA doesn’t just claim athletes and institutions don’t always protect student-athletes as thoroughly as they should. The NCAA’s own lawyers have suggested that. In mounting a defense against a lawsuit by the family of Derek Sheely, a Frostburg State university football player who died in 2011 after collapsing during a team practice, the NCAA’s main legal argument was that it had no legal duty to protect athletes. NCAA President Mark Emmert claimed his legal team had employed a “terrible choice of words.” He added: “I’m not a lawyer. I am not going to defend or deny what a lawyer wrote in a lawsuit. I will say clearly that we have a clear moral obligation to make sure that we do everything 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, the University of Toledo’s senior vice president of student affairs and Kelly Andrews, the senior associate director of athletics university. . Rachael and Heather were students at the university 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 documents to the meeting and described their concerns. Roger Kravitz reminds Andrews in protest that the university received glowing reports about Evans.
“I can show you a box full of them,” Roger Kravitz recalls Andrews saying. “Why are your children still here? Why don’t they leave if it’s that bad?”
Cindy replied: “Because they didn’t do anything wrong”.
For Kravitz’s family, the university seemed to have little concern about how Evans’ behavior affected the mental health of students. A few years later, the university would receive more allegations about Evans, including sexual assault. Evans was never charged with any of the allegations against him, and the University of Toledo said it has no further comment on the meeting.
“Non-athletes have no concept of what it’s like to be a high-performance athlete,” says Cooper. “It’s not a game. It feels like life and death. There is a thin margin between being on the team and not being on the team. Being on a scholarship and not being on a scholarship. The pressure on college athletes is caused by the multibillion dollar industry that represents college athletes with no rights or protections.”