Four California universities with big-time sports programs are fighting a legislative effort that could radically change the way schools recruit, educate and retain student athletes.
The schools are opposing the "Student Athlete Bill of Rights," they say, because it would be too expensive, put their programs at a competitive disadvantage and may go against NCAA rules.
Senate Bill 1525, by Sen. Alex Padilla, D-Los Angeles, would require schools earning more than $10 million a year in media revenue from athletic programs to continue an athlete's scholarship if he or she is no longer able to participate in athletics, and would allow athletes to switch schools without restriction. The bill also would force schools to provide student athletes with life skills and financial workshops and pay health care premiums for low-income individuals.
"It's evident to me we're losing focus on the mission of the university itself," Padilla said. Student athletes, he added, "should be competing second to getting an education."
His measure would affect the University of Southern California, UCLA, UC Berkeley and Stanford University. Other schools would be affected if their media revenue reaches the $10 million threshold.
The bill's centerpiece provision would require schools to provide scholarships to athletes who become injured or whose scholarships aren't renewed for nondisciplinary reasons. The impact would be tempered at some schools, however, because this provision would not apply to athletes on teams with a graduation rate greater than 60 percent. At Stanford, for instance, all athletic teams have a graduation rate over 90 percent, said Patrick Dunkley, Stanford's deputy director of athletics.
Still, the schools argue that the requirement would be expensive for schools where it does apply and that any proposed new rules should cover all schools.
"If we're going to apply a bill of rights it should apply equally to all athletes at all institutions, not just ones who make more than $10 million in media revenue," Dunkley said.
Larry Scott, commissioner of the Pac-12 Conference to which all four schools belong, said the league opposes Padilla's bill because it "would clearly be harmful and put Pac-12 schools in our state on an uneven playing field."
The schools say they already continue scholarships for injured athletes, but they oppose doing so for athletes who leave the team for performance reasons. Providing scholarships for those students, the schools contend, would unfairly count against the scholarship limit imposed by the NCAA and put them at a competitive disadvantage.
Rick Allen, founder of Informed Athlete, an organization that advises athletes and their parents, agreed with the schools' assessment.
"Any time an athlete receives a scholarship that is athletically related and has a basis in the fact that they are an athlete, it's going to count against NCAA limits," he said. "It would hamper their ability to be competitive with their Pac-12 counterparts."
The schools also contend that a provision requiring them to pay health care premiums for low-income athletes would run afoul of NCAA rules that prevent athletes from receiving extra benefits.
The NCAA declined to comment on any aspect of the bill, but the organization's bylaws appear to allow universities to pick up the tab for health coverage.
"I don't know if these schools are confused or if they are trying to cause confusion," said a supporter of Padilla's bill, Ramogi Huma, a former UCLA linebacker and president of the National College Players Association.