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Ahead of the Final Four, Democrats weigh college athletes’ struggles

Gender inequity, bill of rights for athletes discussed

Sen. Christopher S. Murphy moderated a panel on college athletics Wednesday.
Sen. Christopher S. Murphy moderated a panel on college athletics Wednesday. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Sen. Christopher S. Murphy said he was riveted to the television Monday night as the University of Connecticut women’s basketball team defeated the North Carolina State Wolfpack to advance to the Huskies’ 14th consecutive Final Four.

But being an admitted college sports fan has made the Connecticut senator and several of his fellow congressional Democrats all the more aware of the challenges facing college athletes. And a group of Senate and House Democrats convened a series of virtual panels Wednesday making the case for improved rights, compensation and equity for NCAA student-athletes.

Rep. Jamaal Bowman, D-N.Y., talked about first paying attention to college basketball in the early 1990s, watching the UNLV Runnin’ Rebels, the Duke University men’s teams with Christian Laettner and the Michigan Fab Five.

“I think it was the Fab Five that really got me paying — I was in high school — but it got me paying attention to college sports differently and got me to the point of understanding, like, how much money is generated in college sports, and then I went on to play college sports,” Bowman said.

Murphy and Bowman started with a discussion that set the table, with Rep. Lori Trahan, D-Mass., moderating a subsequent discussion on issues specific to women’s college athletics. Democratic Sens. Cory Booker of New Jersey, a former scholarship football player at Stanford University, and Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut closed with their pitch for legislating a bill of rights for athletes.

Among the athletes participating in the virtual discussion was Sedona Prince, a forward on the University of Oregon women’s basketball team who posted a TikTok video that went viral during the 2021 NCAA basketball tournament highlighting the inequities between the men’s and women’s facilities in the tournament bubbles that were used because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“People always argue that, that women athletes don’t bring in the same viewership and people want to watch men’s more. I think the biggest issue with that is that there’s not enough recognition for our sport,” Prince said. “The NCAA isn’t really blasting out what we do, our stories on and off the court.”

“It’s really impossible to build … an equitable industry to men with the lack of resources in the background,” said Katie Lever of the Drake Group, who was a runner at Western Kentucky University. “I want to see even more people jumping in, not because women’s sports are a charity but because they are a legitimate business venture.”

Prince and Lever joined in the discussion with Trahan and Sydney Moore from Voice in Sport in arguing for colleges and universities to further embrace Title IX and increase gender equity in athletics programs.

Panels on labor policy, athlete rights

Kassidy Woods, who previously played football at Washington State University before transferring to the University of Northern Colorado, told the story of his dismissal from the Washington State team after raising concerns about player safety and health during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Woods, who participated in the first panel, also mentioned struggling to afford meals. That was something that caught Murphy’s attention.

“I think people need to understand the plight of college athletes today: While their coaches are making multimillion-dollar salaries, all the athletes are getting is the scholarship,” Murphy said.

He argued that while the NCAA says the scholarships are adequate, the inequities are dramatic in the five most powerful intercollegiate sports conferences.

“If you look at the Power Five schools, they’re about 4,500 coaches and they’re about 45,000 athletes,” Murphy said. “The coaches are making more money in salary than the total amount of scholarship for the 45,000 athletes.”

Bart Sheard, an AFL-CIO legislative representative, criticized the circular argument against paying student-athletes for their work.

“These college athletes who are amateurs because they don’t get paid, and we can’t pay them because they’re amateurs,” Sheard said.

During the closing discussion, Booker and Blumenthal said the NCAA needs to go far beyond allowing student-athletes to seek outside compensation through sponsorship opportunities for the use of their name, image and likeness.

“We have put together a set of rights, a bill of rights, because protecting athletes means more than just financial compensation, more than just name, image and likeness. It is about their health while they’re in school when they’re injured, to get proper medical care and afterward, when results of injuries appear later in life, a trust fund to help them,” Blumenthal said. “And also, if they’re injured, no school ought to be able to deprive them of their scholarship.”

Blumenthal said the legislative proposal was crafted based on the experiences of supporters.

Brittany Collens, a professional tennis player who played at the University of Massachusetts, recalled the response to a piece she wrote for The Players’ Tribune in which she recalled having her records nullified over NCAA infractions that involved an extra $504 in benefits for the tennis program (the total for the athletic department was about $9,100).

“The response I got from this article that I had written, kind of a letter, a cry out to the health and safety problems in college sports, was alarming,” Collens told Blumenthal and Booker. “I had expected that there are other athletes who had dealt with similar issues in health and safety in college as myself, but to see the word suicide and suicidal to me in my DMs from hundreds of college athletes and parents was, it was horrifying.”

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