Loyola University Chicago School of Law, JD 2018
In January 2017, Connecticut joined the list of states seeking to implement new safety protections for their student-athletes by proposing a new bill, No. 6870, establishing an athletic protection commission. While the law might be appealing on paper, both the NCAA and Connecticut Athletic Directors have major concerns about the intent, implementation, and carry-through of the proposed law.
The Committee on Higher Education and Employment Advancement of Connecticut proposed the bill with the purpose of protecting the health and safety of college athletes. If passed, the bill would create an athletic protection committee dedicated to the health safety of student-athletes participating at the collegiate level. The program plans to develop guidelines, gather best practices, record and investigate complaints, and issue remedies and penalties for violations. Although in the preliminary stages, those involved in leadership roles in interscholastic athletics already see this bill as an unnecessary attempt to regulate athletic institutions.
Opposition and the NCAA
While Athletic Directors can appreciate the intent of the proposed committee, many find it unnecessary for reasons such as unrealistic implementation and inappropriate motives.
The goal will be to more strictly regulate and investigate the health and safety of Connecticut’s student-athletes. The program will seek to ensure the best safety practices are enforced, receive and investigate abuse complaints, and provide protections for whistle-blowers. Those in opposition fear the implementation and carry-through of this plan will likely fail because Connecticut’s state budget is too tight to dedicate the appropriate resources needed to make the safety commission effective.
In addition to the fear of failure in implementation, many are questioning the motive of the bill. It is well-known that the state is battling an excessive opioid issue, which is being hailed as a “public health crisis.” If the safety commission is being introduced as a protection program but really is a mask for the real intent to infiltrate and eliminate the opioid problem within college athletics, then this bill is inappropriate and state funds will be misplaced. This is a valid concern given that no sufficient data exists to support the need for such an intense interscholastic athletic state program on safety.
What can the NCAA do?
The NCAA Bylaws are vague in regards to the regulation of maintaining the health and safety of student-athletes. With only a few exceptions, such as requiring a general medical clearance to begin or continue to play, Section 2.2.3 of the Bylaws defers the responsibility to keep athletes safe to the member institution schools. Accordingly, Connecticut’s bill could be the first of its kind to actually regulate the NCAA. Thus, in turn, Athletic Departments will be subjected to the watchful eye of both the state government and the NCAA.
Although city and state laws regarding athlete health have been passed, this is the first to have such a broad and generalized reach. In 2014, the city of Boston passed legislation requiring a neuro-trauma consultant present at every Division I football, lacrosse, and ice hockey game. Similarly, California recently passed a specific guidelines referring to procedures to correcting dehydration and treatment of concussions in athletes. The aforementioned policies are specific while Connecticut’s proposed commission is too general to be able to gauge the potential consequences.
Currently, the NCAA does not have enforceable health rules. Although it has been moving in the direction of establishing a uniform standard care, no such policy or provision exists yet. If state governments pass legislation like bill no. 6870 in Connecticut, it will force schools to create their own “standard care” for their athletes, creating a new set of inconsistencies and potential problems for the NCAA.
If the NCAA is in opposition to state legislatures passing laws to have a greater influence over their member institutions, the organization needs to establish stronger and more specific guidelines. If that is the case, there would be no need for the legislatures to infiltrate and regulate college athletics. Specifically, implementing new safety and health guidelines, as opposed to constantly deferring that responsibility to member colleges and universities, is a good place to start.