Land let’s be clear – Andrew Cooper is not a fan of the National Collegiate Athletic Association. A former track and cross country athlete at Washington State University and the University of California, Berkeley, Cooper’s experience as an athlete at America’s top universities has given him a critical eye on how the NCAA governs college sports. As a long-distance runner, Cooper has had plenty of time to think. He believes that the structure, system and priorities of US college sports need to be reset.
Cooper served as president of the NCAA’s Student-Athlete Advisory Council at WSU and UC Berkeley. Today, he is an athlete advocate who sees systemic failures in how universities and the NCAA handle mental health and sexual abuse allegations. Cooper sees patterns.
“The issue is that universities have processes in place and make empty claims about protecting athletes and protecting students,” Cooper said. “Universities are trusted to regulate themselves, but they benefit from covering up sexual harassment. America has a crisis around self-regulation.
“Universities care [about athletes] until it potentially affects their reputation and revenue. When allegations affect a university’s reputation and revenue, it suddenly affects an individual’s job. If your job depends on protecting the university’s reputation or revenue, you will do everything possible to protect the reputation and revenue of your source of income. Anyone who has taken a Politics 101 course will immediately understand that an institution will protect its own interests at the expense of employees or students who are adversely affected by an event.”
And there’s plenty of income to protect. For example, this summer the 16-university Big Ten conference signed a seven-year media rights deal with Fox, CBS and NBC worth more than $7 billion, with each university receiving $80 million to $100 million a year. At the highest level, college sports, governed by the NCAA, are big business.
More than 1,000 universities and colleges 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’s rules are different from the NBA’s, so soccer also differs from FIFA’s laws of the game (one quirk is the countdown clock). There are a number of rules regarding amateurism (athletes are not paid), athlete eligibility, playing time and exploitation of image rights. However, there is no clear umbrella policy for reporting sexual harassment allegations through the NCAA. Universities and colleges, in Cooper’s view and in the experience of many athletes and youth coaches (as reported recently at the University of Toledo), often set athletes up for failure.
“Why does the NCAA exist?” Cooper asks. “It is not to protect athletes. It should exist to protect college athletes and regulate college sports. That is why it was founded in 1906.”
The NCAA, then called the United States Intercollegiate Athletic Association, was born out of the crisis. According to the NCAA’s website, there were 18 deaths and 159 serious injuries during the 1905 college football season. President Theodore Roosevelt urged colleges to focus on the safety of football players, and among 13 colleges, rules were established to prevent deaths on the field.
Cooper points to Michigan State University’s handling of now-convicted rapist Larry Nassar as an example of how some institutions deal with sometimes costly sexual harassment allegations. Nassar worked as a doctor at MSU and as the head coach of 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 Nassar victims, including many young athletes. In 2014, the former cheerleader reported Nassar’s abuse to MSU officials, but the university initially ruled that the doctor’s invasive digital “pelvic floor” treatments were medically appropriate. The NCAA cleared MSU of any wrongdoing in how it handled Nassar’s sexual-harassment allegations, and the university said the allegations it covered up were “simply false.”
“Larry Nassar was one of the biggest sexual assault trials in history,” Cooper said. “He attacked hundreds of women. But what happens when a person in authority sexually assaults a student? Are they 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 “culture of sexual violence on campus” after several football players were convicted of harassment following incidents that led to the shooting. the team’s coach and then-university president Ken Starr resigned. Starr, who died in September, was a former US attorney general who led investigations into Bill Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky in the 1990s.
But the NCAA did not punish the university, even after officials failed to report allegations of sexual harassment against football players between 2010 and 2015. “Baylor acknowledged moral and ethical failings in dealing with sexual and interpersonal violence on campus, but defended those failures. egregious, it was not a violation of NCAA rules,” the NCAA said at the time. The NCAA committee investigating Baylor said it could not punish the university because its failures were not limited to its athletes and were part of a broader problem on campus.
“The NCAA refused to punish Michigan State and refused to punish Baylor for an active cover-up. [crimes]”, – says Cooper. “The NCAA exists only to protect the interests of the universities and the level.”
The NCAA did not respond to multiple requests for an interview and did not comment on how it handles allegations of sexual harassment and sexual assault in college sports. There is a policy document released by the organization’s Women’s Athletics Committee that states that “sexual relationships between coaches and student-athletes have become a serious problem” and that “any romantic or sexual relationship between coaches and student-athletes constitutes sexual harassment.” “.
“The law is implemented by the government, and the policy is implemented by the human resources department,” says Cooper. “It’s essentially worthless if your human resources department has zero defenses against the institution. Corporate America often follows the law because there is a risk of liability if they don’t. Universities do not want to be held liable for damages to students who are sexually assaulted by a professor or coach. [but] there is no control. They can do whatever they want.”
Athletes aren’t the only ones suing the NCAA, and institutions don’t always protect student-athletes as thoroughly as they should. The NCAA’s own lawyers have suggested it. When the family of Derek Sheely, the Frostburg State University football player who died after collapsing during a team practice in 2011, filed a defense against the lawsuit, the NCAA’s central legal argument was that it had no legal duty to protect athletes. NCAA president Mark Emmert later claimed the legal team had used a “terrible choice of words.” He added: “I’m not a lawyer. I am not going to defend or deny what a lawyer writes in a lawsuit. I will state unequivocally that we have a clear moral obligation to make sure we 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 University of Toledo Senior Vice President for Student Affairs Dr. Kay Patten Wallace and University of Toledo Senior Associate Athletic Director Kelly Andrews. . Rachael and Heather were students at the university and part of the women’s soccer program. They were concerned about the behavior of football coach Brad Evans and believed he was emotionally abusive to the players. Roger and Cindy recall that they brought the documents to the meeting and explained their concerns. Roger Kravitz recalls that Andrews objected to the university receiving glowing reports about 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 leave?”
Cindy replied, “Because they didn’t do anything wrong.”
For the Kravitz family, the university seemed to have little concern about how Evans’ behavior was affecting students’ mental health. A few years later, the university would receive more allegations against Evans, including sexual harassment. No charges have been filed against Evans, and the University of Toledo said it had no further comment on the meeting.
“Non-athletes have no idea what it’s like to be a high-performance athlete,” says Cooper. “It’s not a game. It feels like life and death. It’s a razor’s edge between being on the team and not being on the team. Being retired and not being retired. The pressure that college athletes face stems from a multi-billion dollar industry that college athletes advocate for, but without any rights or protections.