LTo be clear – Andrew Cooper is not a fan of the National Collegiate Athletic Association. A former track and cross country coach at Washington State University and the University of California, Berkeley, Cooper’s experience as an athlete at America’s top universities gave him a critical eye for how the NCAA governs college sports. As a long-distance runner, Cooper had plenty of time to think. And he believes the structure, system, and priorities of U.S. college sports need to be reset.
Cooper served inside the machine as chair of the NCAA Student-Athlete Advisory Council at WSU and UC Berkeley. Today, she is an athlete rights activist who sees systemic failure in how universities and the NCAA handle issues surrounding mental health and sexual assault 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. “Colleges are trusted to regulate themselves but they profit from covering up sexual abuse. There is a crisis around self-regulation in America.
“Universities are interested [about athletes] until it potentially affects their reputation and income. When allegations affect a university’s reputation and revenue, suddenly it affects someone’s job. If your job involves protecting the reputation or income of the university then you will make every effort to protect the reputation and income of your source of income. Anyone who takes a Politics 101 course will immediately realize that it is obvious that an institution will protect its interests at the expense of employees or students who are adversely affected by an incident.”
And there is plenty of income to protect. For example, this summer the 16-university Big Ten conference agreed to a seven-year media rights deal with Fox, CBS and NBC worth more than $7 billion that will see each university receive $80-100 million a year. At the highest level, college sports governed by the NCAA is big business.
More than 1,000 colleges and universities are under the administrative control of the NCAA. The NCAA has its own rules and regulations for sports on and off the field that often differ from international governing bodies. College basketball rules differ from the NBA, so does soccer from Fifa’s rules of the game (one course is a stopwatch). There is a labyrinth of regulations regarding amateurism (no salary paid to athletes), eligibility of athletes, playing time, and abuse of image rights. However, there is no clear umbrella policy for reporting sexual assault allegations through the NCAA. Colleges and universities are self-governing which, according to Cooper’s point and the experience of many young athletes and coaches (as recently reported at the University of Toledo), often fail athletes.
“Why does the NCAA exist?” Cooper asks. “Not to protect the athletes. It is supposed to exist to protect college athletes and regulate college sports. That is why it was founded in 1906.”
Later renamed 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 called on universities to address the safety of football players and established rules to stop deaths on the field at 13 universities.
Cooper points to Michigan State University’s handling of now-convicted rapist Larry Nassar as an example of how some institutions deal with sexual abuse allegations, sometimes at great cost. Nassar was trained by MSU as a physician and worked as an athletic trainer for the USA Gymnastics national team for 18 years. In 2018, MSU (or, rather, its insurers) agreed to pay $500 million to settle lawsuits by 332 of Nassar’s victims, a list that includes many young athletes. A former student reported Nassar’s abuse to MSU officials in 2014, but the university initially ruled that invasive digital treatments of the doctor’s “pelvic area” were medically appropriate. The NCAA cleared MSU of any wrongdoing in how it handled Nassar’s sexual assault allegations, and the university said the accusations that it was covered up are “simply false.”
“Larry Nassar was one of the biggest sexual assault trials in history,” Cooper says. “He assaulted hundreds of women. So, what happens when someone in a position of authority sexually assaults a student? Are they being held accountable? Is the school responsible?”
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 fired after incidents that led to the shooting. were convicted of rape. the team’s coach and the resignation of then-college president Ken Starr. Starr, who died in September, was a former US attorney general who led an investigation into Bill Clinton’s alleged affair with Monica Lewinsky in the 1990s.
But the NCAA did not punish the university after officials failed to report sexual assault allegations against football players between 2010 and 2015. did not constitute a violation of NCAA rules,” the NCAA said at the time. An NCAA committee investigating Baylor said it could not impose a penalty because the university’s failures were not limited to its athletes and were part of a broader problem on campus.
“The NCAA refused to sanction Michigan State and refused to sanction Baylor for actively covering up [crimes],” Cooper says. “The NCAA exists only to protect the universities and the interests of the league.”
The NCAA did not respond to multiple requests for an interview or comment on how it handles sexual assault and allegations of sexual assault in college sports. A policy document issued by the organization’s Women’s Athletic Committee states that “sexual relationships between coaches and student-athletes have become a serious problem” and that “any romantic or sexual relationship between a coach and student-athlete is sexual abuse.”
“A law is enforced by the government and a policy is enforced by the human resources department,” says Cooper. “If your human resources department has zero tolerance for speaking out against the institution, then it’s basically pointless. Corporate America often follows the law because there’s a risk of liability if they don’t. Universities don’t want to harm students who are harmed by a professor. or being sexually assaulted by a coach. [but] there is no supervision. They can do whatever they want.”
It’s not just athletes who claim the NCAA and institutions aren’t always protecting student-athletes as much as they should. The NCAA’s lawyers have suggested as much. In mounting a defense against a lawsuit by the family of Derek Sheely, a football player at Frostburg State University who died in 2011 after collapsing during a team practice, the NCAA’s central legal argument was that it had no legal duty to protect NCAA President Mark Emmert later claimed his legal team used a “terrible choice of words.” Then he added: “I am not a lawyer. I will not defend or deny what a lawyer has written in a case. “I would make absolutely clear that we have a clear moral obligation to 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, senior vice president for student affairs at the University of Toledo and Kelly Andrews, the university’s senior athletic director. . Rachael and Heather were college students and part of the women’s soccer program. They had concerns about the behavior of football coach Brad Evans and believed he was emotionally abusive to the players. As Roger and Cindy recall, they brought documents to the meeting and expressed their concerns. Roger Kravitz recalls that Andrews protested that the university had received glowing reports from Evans.
“I can show you a box full of them,” Roger Kravitz recalls Andrews saying. “Why are your children still here? If it’s so bad, why don’t they come out?”
“Because they didn’t do anything wrong,” replied Cindy.
To Kravitz’s family, the university seemed to have little concern for how Evans’ behavior was affecting students’ mental health. A few years later, the university would receive more allegations against Evans, including sexual harassment. Evans has never been charged with any of the allegations against him, and the University of Toledo said it had no further comment on the meeting.
“A non-athlete has no idea what it takes to be a high-performance athlete,” says Cooper. “It’s not a game. It feels like life and death. It’s a thin line between being on the team and not being on the team. They were on the scholarship and they were not on the scholarship. The pressure that college athletes face is due to the multibillion dollar industry that supports college athletes, but without any rights or protections.