Congressional scrutiny of the NCAA's handling of student athletics is growing, with members of Congress asking pointed questions of top officials about the treatment and benefits offered to student athletes.
As bills emerge to force colleges and universities to make good on scholarships that cover four years of education - and as legal challenges seek financial rewards and union rights for athletes - NCAA officials should stand warned that lawmakers are pressing for action to address perceived inequities, Rep. Tony Cardenas said in the latest episode of the ESPN podcast series "Capital Games."
"We're hearing from young people who say, 'Well, as soon as I got hurt, all of the sudden my scholarship was gone and I didn't have the wherewithal to finish school," said Cardenas, D-Calif., a member of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.
Cardenas has asked NCAA President Mark Emmert for responses to a series of questions regarding how the NCAA oversees athletes' health, and the degree to which academic performance is a factor in officials' compensation.
"Right now it appears that they are treating our questions as noise," he said. "We haven't had any formal answers from them. The communication has been minuscule."
Emmert declined an invitation to appear on the podcast. Even as the NCAA has drawn heat for slow action, though, some of the most powerful athletic conferences have begun discussing packages that would remake the relationships between institutions and student athletes.
Commissioners of two of the most influential athletic conferences - Jim Delany of the Big Ten and Larry Scott of the Pac-12 - said they are confident about the prospects of instituting change from within.
Delany and Scott both said they are confident a series of NCAA reforms granting the power-five conferences (the ACC, Big 12, Big Ten , SEC and Pac-12) more autonomy and voting privileges will pass in August. Delany said if he were a betting person, he would say it's more likely to pass than not, and that the change will likely take 12 to 18 months to occur.
Congressional scrutiny, he said, will "force us to face up to the changes that would be healthy for our athletes and for our schools and for the public."
"It's been very difficult to get us the authority to do more and spend more on student athletes, but I believe in August we're going to get a vote of the NCAA board that allows us to do that," Delany said. "I think there will be an expectation that we do present a big package of change. And I'd be disappointed if we don't make progress in that area in what I would describe for NCAA terms, pretty quickly."
Scott, the Pac-12's commissioner, agreed with that assessment.
"Based on the progress that the conferences are making with the NCAA, there's really a clear path forward for the five conferences as well as our peers to conduct a very significant reform process," he said. "So my view would be I hope it's not necessary for Congress to spend their time on this."
Scott said he is against a true pay-for-play model or employee-employer relationship or any other "radical model," adding that it would result in a "huge decrease in the number of opportunities for women athletes and for Olympic-sports athletes, which would be a real shame."
Scott also said there is no discussion about changing the NCAA basketball tournament from its 68-team format.
"There's value in collegiate athletics of all different shapes and sizes being together, and especially around the NCAA basketball tournament, having a 68-team field, having the Cinderella-story possibility," Scott said. "There's real value in that so we've got no interest in breaking away and doing something different so long as the system can be nimble enough, flexible enough to allow us to do what we want to do for student athletes."
Delany said "there is something very collegiate about the NCAA tournament. We think that even in a 'Division Four' [a separate league for the power-five conferences] you need to play people - other people need to be involved."
Delany also said colleges and universities shouldn't be permitted to strip student athletes of scholarships because of on-field performance.
"I fully agree that if there are people who are being run off, people who are losing athletic scholarships because of performance, that's wrong. That's not the commitment that we like to see," Delany said. "I'm at a stage where I'm not happy with some of the things that I see and read. I recognize that it's good for a lot of people but some of the things that have happened are not defensible."
As changes move along, Rep. Cardenas said he is looking forward to the day when the NCAA is forced to clarify, via legal challenges, whether they view student athletes as being in a professional relationship with the colleges and universities that offer them scholarships.
Cardenas also blasted the NCAA for taking the position, in a wrongful-death suit, that the NCAA does not a have a "legal duty" to protect student athletes.
"They better be very, very careful when they talk like that. If they want to go around splitting hairs, we'll get them in front of Congress and we'll ask them the specific questions. And then we're going to use their words and we're going to use their advertisements and we're going to use the tactics that they do to recruit these kids, and then ask them, 'So what does that actually mean?' "
"When people are taking advantage of 18-, 19- and 20-year-olds and throwing them away like a paper towel, that is not acceptable, especially when they're actually taking in millions - if not over the lifetime billions - of dollars of taxpayers' [dollars]," he said.
"The bottom line is, they better be careful," he continued. "The NCAA is acting like they can or are willing to self-police. It doesn't appear that they are willing to do it to the degree that they should."
You can listen to the full podcast HERE.
"Capital Games with Katz and Klein" is part of the ESPN Perspectives podcast series, with original programming on issues across the sports world. The program explores the intersection of sports and politics, through interviews and analysis, and can be downloaded free via iTunes or on the ESPN Website.
UPDATE: According to an NCAA spokesperson, the NCAA provided its written response to Rep. Tony Cardenas on June 13 th, after the interview for this podcast was conducted. A spokesman for Rep. Cardenas confirmed that the response has been sent, but said Cardenas' office is reviewing and analyzing the answers before releasing the letter.