Does the NCAA Ignore Student-Athlete Violence?

Liz Mullen of the Sports Business Journal tweeted this morning about a Seattle police investigation into rape allegations made against a basketball player at the University of Washington. Mullen wondered why the NCAA doesn’t get involved in such matters: “Does NCAA care about violent crime or just agents?” She wonders, not unreasonably, why an organisation obsessed with kids who take $100 from an agent would do nothing about serious allegation of violent sexual assault.

It turns out the NCAA has no actual rules dealing with such matters. Prompted by Mullen’s tweets, I reviewed the always-entertaining NCAA Division I Manual, which incorporates the constitution and bylaws governing all Division I sports. I searched for various permutations of “sexual assault,” “violence,” et al., and came up with nothing. A search for the word “agent,” in contrast, produced 34 hits.

Digging deeper, the one section dealing with “ethical conduct” — Article 10 of the bylaws, for those of you playing the home gane — addresses just three major subjects: “improper benefits” and dealing with agents, drugs, and gambling. Nothing about anything having to do with violence, sexual or otherwise. The NCAA simply doesn’t regulate it.

Article 2 of the constitution does state a number of general ethical principles, including one that says, “It is the responsibility of each member institution to protect the health of and provide a safe environment for each of its participating student-athletes.” But that would only generally speak to violenceagainst student-athletes, not violence caused by them against non-students, as has been alleged in the Washington case.

Mullen argues the NCAA should apply the same standards to allegations of criminal activity as it does to alleged violations of NCAA rules — that is, a student-athlete can be suspended pending a final determination. I suspect the reason the NCAA doesn’t do this is that would invite a ton of litigation. There’s all sorts of tort and antitrust liability that might be raised. Remember, the NCAA isn’t like a professional sports league. The NFL can get away with arbitrary and capricious suspensions because it has a federally recognised collective bargaining agreement with an employee union. The NCAA is merely a voluntary association of member institutions who don’t even recognise the student-athletes as “employees.”

There’s also the fact that most NCAA Division I institutions are public (i.e. government-owned) schools. Every state has different laws regarding how their institutions run, which override anything the NCAA might want to do. There’s also a host of federal regulations to consider, such as educational privacy laws, which would discourage the NCAA from stepping into anything involving the criminal justice system.

That said, I share Mullen’s view that it’s ridiculous for the NCAA to spend millions enforcing inane “amateurism” rules while turning a blind eye to genuine allegations of criminal activity. But the answer probably doesn’t lie with giving the NCAA more authority. They’ve consistently demonstrated an inability to enforce their existing rules. The best answer lies with pressuring individual member institutions — and state legislatures, if necessary — to adopt stronger policies dealing with allegations of student-athlete violence. A decentralized approach will ultimately produce more equitable outcomes.

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