Sen. Chris Murphy says NCAA treats athletes 'like commodities,' offers fixes for college sports system
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Sen. Chris Murphy says NCAA treats athletes 'like commodities,' offers fixes for college sports system

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U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy  (D-Conn.) at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on Dec. 3, 2019, Washington, D.C.

U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on Dec. 3, 2019, Washington, D.C. (Michael Brochstein/Zuma Press/TNS)

HARTFORD, Conn. - Sen. Chris Murphy continued to hit the college sports establishment Monday, accusing the NCAA and its member schools of devoting insufficient attention to student-athlete health.

"It is astounding that the NCAA has not taken firmer steps to make sure that all of its members put the health of its athletes first," Murphy said at a press conference. "They were formed as an organization to protect the health of athletes. But today, they are almost completely absent from the conversation about how you make sure, especially in football, that students are protected from what could be life-altering trauma."

Murphy's office on Monday released the third and final report in a series on college sports, this time focusing on student-athlete physical health and well-being. The report argues that the NCAA system treats athletes "like commodities," risking their health for the chance to win more games and earn more money for coaches, administrators and executives.

Murphy proposed a series of potential reforms, including guaranteed health care coverage for student athletes, guaranteed four-year scholarships, independent team doctors who do no report to athletic department officials, the right to transfer schools more freely and "real consequences" for schools that do not follow health protocols.

As for potential federal legislation, Murphy and Sen. Mitt Romney (R-UT) recently formed a bipartisan working group on student-athlete compensation and related issues and plan to meet Tuesday with NCAA president Mark Emmert. Murphy said he will continue to push the cause in 2020.

"Our hope is that we would get some legislation introduced early next year," Murphy said. "Admittedly, this will be a heavy lift. There's not a lot of time on the calendar next year, there's not a lot of evidence that Mitch McConnell is interested in using the floor of the Senate to debate any meaningful legislation. I'm not saying this is easy, there just may be an imperative coming from state action."

Murphy said the issue of college athletes rights comes with extra urgency at the moment, given the passage of a bill in California that would allow players there to sign endorsement deals and otherwise profit from their names, images and likenesses.

"We can't wait for the NCAA to make the right decision," said state senator Derek Slap, a Democrat from West Hartford who has proposed similar legislation in Connecticut. "The only way that I think things are going to get better for our student-athletes is to keep the pressure on. That means attacking it at the federal level, as Sen. Murphy is doing, and at the state level as well."

Slap said he has "good conversations," with UConn officials about student-athlete well-being and compensation and that he anticipates a public hearing on the subject in the next few months.

Murphy's latest report follows two others, both released earlier this year. The first, published in March, argued for major college athletes to receive a larger share of the profits they generate for the NCAA. The second, published in June, criticized a "lack of academic integrity across college sports."

The report released Monday cites several examples of what Murphy sees as athlete mistreatment, including a former college basketball player who hurt his knee during a game and was left to pay the medical bills himself, a former college football player who died of dementia that resulted from head trauma and another former football player, Jordan McNair, who died last year following a team workout.

Allen Sack, a University of New Haven professor who has studied the college sports industry, said those examples alarmed him.

"I've read a lot about this, and I have a grandson who plays football, and he is 16 years old now, and I have encouraged him to play that game," Sack said, next to Murphy at the press conference. "And I start reading these things, and I see how bad things are right now, I'm going to go back maybe even tonight and talk to him about that."

Murphy, who was one of the first members of Congress to support college-athlete compensation, said he hopes to work with the NCAA on future legislation, to the extent that will be possible.

"I think the NCAA would like to work with Congress to pass a law that provides limited compensation rights to student athletes. That's not something I'm really interested in," Murphy said. "So my hope is that we can work with the NCAA, but there may be a point at which the NCAA wants such a limited right to compensation that we have to walk away and right our own bill."

Murphy said while that other problems might be more pressing, college athlete welfare deserves attention.

"This isn't the most important issue in Connecticut or the country," Murphy said. "There are a dozen issues that are more important. But to me this is an issue of civil rights. These are largely young African-American athletes that are playing in the big-time college sports programs, and the adults who are getting rich off their exploits are largely white. That fact can't be ignored."

Visit The Hartford Courant (Hartford, Conn.) at www.courant.com

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