In an appearance hailed by colleagues in the sports law community as courageous and compelling, UB Law Associate Dean Dionne Koller urged Senate lawmakers to allow college athletes to earn income from endorsements, and to stifle NCAA control of athletes. Watch her testimony and read her written testimony.
Koller’s July 1 testimony before the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation was part of a hearing titled, “Exploring a Compensation Framework for Intercollegiate Athletes.” Koller, a former athlete and director of UB’s Center for Sport and the Law, advocated strongly for athletes’ rights.
“Congress’s decades-long ‘hands-off’ approach to intercollegiate sports has provided the NCAA an opportunity to build a multi-billion-dollar model for sports that is popular and profitable. It is also a model that is breaking under the weight of the unfairness and injustice it perpetuates,” she told the committee.
She acknowledged that intercollegiate sports has many benefits for players, universities and American culture. “Unfortunately, the NCAA model is one that too often works for everyone in the intercollegiate athletics enterprise except the athletes whose labor makes it possible. The excesses and abuses are documented and well known,” she added. These include huge salaries and perks for coaches and administrators, mandatory student fees to support bloated athletic programs — assessed even to non-athletes — and yet few protections for the athletes without whom the programs could not exist.
The National College Athletics Association has done little to protect athletes from the kinds of sexual abuse perpetrated by Dr. Larry Nasser at Michigan State University, or the types of harm that occur due to excessive training, insufficient rest following injury, and concussions, Koller testified. College athletes have “no meaningful administrative or legal recourse if their athletics experience is physically and emotionally harmful,” she said. And they share in none of the revenue their performance generates.
She then addressed the social justice part of the equation. Most college basketball players are Black, and most coaches and staff are white. There is a “troubling disparity” between graduation rates for Black and white student athletes, she said. “These Black athletes frequently come from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds, so that the reality of their athletics experience is that they earn millions for white coaches and administrators while the athletes’ own families often cannot afford to travel to watch them play.”
Koller dismantled, piece by piece, the NCAA’s argument for continued self-governance. She called upon Congress to allow college athletes to market their name, image and likeness, and to implement safety standards that ensure quality health care for student athletes and protect them from, for example, being forced to play sports during the current COVID-19 pandemic. Watch the entire committee hearing.