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Senate Commerce Committee chairman Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., began a hearing on college athletics Wednesday with vigor, skepticism and the promise that this is the start of a campaign of NCAA oversight. A little more than three hours later, he ended it with what seemed like a sense of resignation.

In between, NCAA President Mark Emmert -- the star witness -- announced his support for what he termed "scholarships for life" and faced a barrage of criticism and sharp questions on a wide range of issues.

Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., who early Wednesday released a report on how colleges report, investigate and adjudicate sexual violence, blasted Emmert concerning a finding that more than 20% of schools give the athletics department oversight of cases involving athletes. In her wake, several other members of the committee, some Democrat and some Republican, followed suit.

Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., wrung a "commitment" from Emmert to address the matter, and Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., gesturing toward the hearing room's entryway, admonished Emmert to "walk out this door and fix that."

Rockefeller has announced he is not running for re-election in 2014, but in remarks directed at Emmert he said that if the Democrats "control Congress next time ... we want to make this a continuing subject of this oversight committee. We have oversight of sports. All sports. We have the ability to subpoena. ... This is part of a process here."

He later ruminated on whether the committee should subpoena college presidents to appear -- a notion that Cory Booker, D-N.J., strongly backed later in the hearing.

In response to Emmert having noted earlier in the hearing that he has a limited role in NCAA rules-making that is ultimately done largely by college presidents, McCaskill said, "I can't tell whether you are in charge or whether you a minion" to the schools and college presidents.

"If you're just a monetary pass-through, why should you exist?"

Dean Heller, R-Nev., asked Emmert if there were a bill in the Senate "that would disband the NCAA, give me the reasons why I shouldn't vote for that bill."

That gave Emmert a platform to make the case that while major-college football and men's basketball draw most of the public's attention and scrutiny, those sports include about 5% of the participants, so problems in those areas "should not be interpreted as everything is wrong with college sports."

"I'm not very good at math in my head," Emmert said, "but that means of about 465,000 student-athletes, there are 450,000 for whom it's working very well."

Emmert, in his opening remarks, also said he supported the advent of athletes being able to receive scholarships that would allow them to complete their degrees, regardless of whether they do well, after their college eligibility has ended.

But Booker, a former Stanford football player, turned the conversation back toward the highest-profile athletes and the slow pace of change in benefits for them beyond a scholarship basically comprising tuition, room, board, books and mandatory fees.

The issues being discussed now are "the same as when I was an athlete 20 years ago," Booker said. "Where is the urgency?"

In the end, the question left Rockefeller wondering.

"On one level, we've opened the conversation," he said in his concluding remarks. "But my real feeling from this is that we really haven't accomplished much."

As for Emmert's feeling, it was hard to know. Because the hearing went longer than expected, travel plans resulted in NCAA officials hustling Emmert into an elevator. Asked how he thought it went, Emmert said, "Fine."

Then the elevator door closed.

July 10, 2014 

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