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The Columbus Dispatch (Ohio)
Richard Johnson knows the inner workings of the NCAA as someone who has battled in court against the governing body of college sports.
Such experience allows Johnson, a Cleveland attorney, to see how the NCAA would be more vulnerable to attacks on its authority if Congress viewed the besieged organization in the broader context of higher education.
"Paying the players is not the most important thing," Johnson said. "We need to re-establish our priorities. If we are going to pay $350 billion (in taxes) for higher education, what are we doing in sports? What should we be doing?
"How do we get Congress to do something? Somewhere along the line you got to get somebody's attention at a powerful level to get it done."
So Johnson has one question as antitrust lawsuits and the issue of a college players' union threaten the NCAA, a tax-free nonprofit that reported a nearly $61 million surplus for its 2013 fiscal year:
"Where is the Department of Education in all this?" Johnson said. "The secretary of education, Arne Duncan, should be going to Congress with an actual proposed bill with senators and representatives lined up to support it. Nothing will ever happen unless there is an actual law proposed."
The federal government is showing interest in the NCAA. Congress is in the midst of holding two hearings within six days about college sports, and three related bills -- two sponsored by Ohio Rep. Joyce Beatty, D-Jefferson Township -- have been introduced in the past year.
Interest in college sports, however, is nothing new for the nation's lawmakers. Since 1965, Congress has held about 30 formal hearings on college sports and produced 17 reports, but it has never passed legislation to regulate the NCAA.
In 2006, the House Ways and Means Committee asked the NCAA to justify its tax-exempt status, and the Senate Finance Committee examined whether the NCAA was abusing its tax exemption. Those inquiries led to no changes.
"Most of what Congress does is grandstanding," said Gary Roberts, retired dean of the Indiana University McKinney School of Law, who has testified on Capitol Hill about college sports reform. "They have hearings for the political theater of it, but not the substance. Nothing is said at these hearings that they don't already know."
On Wednesday, the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation will hold hearings focused on the welfare of college athletes. The Chronicle of Higher Education reported that NCAA president Mark Emmert is expected to be invited to testify.
Senate testimony is also expected to be heard from Ramogi Huma, the leader of the unionization effort by Northwestern football players, and Ed O'Bannon, the lead plaintiff in a federal antitrust lawsuit against the NCAA that is scheduled to go to trial on June 9.
"Oftentimes you have a piece of legislation made out, and you have constituents come in and testify on it," Beatty said. "The world starts talking about it, and then the bill goes away because the world makes the change itself."
The House Energy and Commerce Committee held hearings in 2009 concerning the much-criticized Bowl Championship Series, and President Barack Obama said then he favored a playoff in Division I college football.
Three years ago, the Justice Department informed the NCAA that it was conducting an antitrust inquiry of the BCS.
The BCS ended after the 2013 season, giving way to this year's first College Football Playoff.
"The NCAA never moves to make any significant change until there is outside pressure," said David Ridpath, an associate professor of sports administration at Ohio University, who testified to Congress in 2004 on NCAA enforcement and infractions. "Any outside pressure brings sunshine to the process, and that usually makes the NCAA do something because if there's one thing for certain, it's that the NCAA doesn't like to be embarrassed."
The power of congressional scrutiny was on display three days ago when the House Education and Workforce Committee held a hearing on the unionization effort of Northwestern football players.
Besides various testimonies criticizing the movement, committee chair John Kline, R-Minn., said collective bargaining is "absolutely not" the answer.
"This is one (hearing) where their re-election could be impacted by what they do," Roberts said. "The college sports political lobby is extremely powerful. When people see a very serious threat to a system they enjoy so much, they'll put political pressure on. I wouldn't be surprised at all if we got something out of Congress that said these kids aren't employees."
Johnson, who represented Andrew Oliver when the former Oklahoma State pitcher received a $750,000 settlement from the NCAA in 2009 to end a lawsuit, said the bigger action Congress should take is to make itself the federal regulator of college sports.
"You need Congress to get organized on this," Johnson said. "There will be incremental change because of litigation and unionization issues, but it'll be slow. Immediate change could happen only if Congress looked at this as a civil-rights issue.
"Poor graduation rates tell you all you need to know about how they're being exploited. The real hard truth is: People don't care. They love their football and basketball games. People can justify any system they want if it's the system they like. To get Congress to care, you got to get people with the clout to get something done."
Lauren Victoria Burke / Associated Press Rep. Marcia Fudge, D-Cleveland, questions a witness at the House Committee on Education and Workforce on college athletes forming unions on Thursday in Washington.