Andrew Cooper, from college star to activist: ‘The NCAA does not exist to protect athletes’: Andrew Cooper hates the NCAA. Cooper’s experience as an athlete at elite American institutions gave him a critical eye for how the NCAA organizes collegiate athletics.
Cooper has thought a lot as a long-distance runner. He thinks collegiate sports’ structure, system, and priorities must change.
Cooper was student-athlete advisory council president at WSU and UC Berkeley. Today, he’s an athlete’s rights activist who believes institutions and the NCAA handle mental health and sexual assault situations poorly. Cooper is pattern-oriented.
“Universities have protocols and make hollow claims about protecting athletes and students.” Universities are trusted to govern themselves, but concealing up sexual assault benefits them. America’s self-regulation is in crisis.
Universities care about athletes until it affects their reputation and money. When allegations affect a university’s reputation and revenue, it affects a person’s position.
If your job depends on safeguarding the university’s reputation or money, you’ll preserve your source of income. Anyone taking Policy 101 would recognize that an institution will preserve its own interests at the expense of workers or pupils.
Plenty of income needs protecting. The 16-university Big Ten conference signed a $7bn media rights deal with Fox, CBS, and NBC this summer, giving each school $80m-$100m each year. NCAA college sports are big business.
NCAA oversees 1,000 universities and colleges. The NCAA has different on- and off-field restrictions than international regulating bodies. The NBA and NCAA have different basketball and soccer rules (one quirk is a timekeeping countdown clock).
Labyrinthine rules govern amateurism (athletes aren’t paid), eligibility, playing time, and image rights. There’s no clear NCAA procedure for reporting sexual harassment. Universities and colleges self-regulate, which Cooper and many players and young coaches (as recorded at Toledo) say fails athletes.
What’s the NCAA’s purpose? Cooper inquires. “No athlete protection. It’s meant to protect and regulate collegiate athletes. It was formed in 1906.”
The NCAA was founded during a crisis. The 1905 college football season saw 18 deaths and 159 major injuries, per the NCAA. 13 colleges enacted safety standards for football players after Theodore Roosevelt urged them to do so.
Cooper cites Michigan State University’s costly response to rapist Larry Nassar as an example of how certain institutions handle sexual assault claims.
MSU employed Nassar as a doctor and head athletic trainer for 18 years. MSU (or its insurers) agreed to pay $500m to 332 Nassar victims in 2018, including many young athletes.
A former cheerleader reported Nassar’s abuse in 2014, but MSU initially concluded his intrusive digital “pelvic floor” treatments were medically justified. The NCAA exonerated MSU of any infractions in handling Nassar’s sexual assault charges, and the institution says cover-up suspicions are “nonsense.”
Cooper says Larry Nassar’s trial was one of the largest in history. Hundreds of women were assaulted. When a powerful individual sexually attacks a student, what happens? Accountability? Is the school responsible?”
In 2021, the NCAA declared Baylor University, a private Christian university in Texas, had a “campus-wide culture of sexual assault” after many football players were convicted of rape after incidents that led to the sacking of the team’s coach and resignation of then-university president Ken Starr.
Starr led a 1990s probe into Bill Clinton’s involvement with Monica Lewinsky. He died in September.
The NCAA did not sanction the institution for failing to submit sexual assault charges against football players between 2010 and 2015.
“Baylor admits to moral and ethical failures in its management of sexual and interpersonal assault on campus,” the NCAA noted at the time. The NCAA committee investigating Baylor ruled it couldn’t punish the university because its faults were campus-wide.
“The NCAA refuses to sanction Michigan State and Baylor,” argues Cooper. “The NCAA protects institutions and tiers.”
The NCAA did not respond to interviews and requests for comment on sexual harassment and assault allegations in collegiate athletics.
A policy paper from the organization’s Committee on Women’s Athletics states “sexual interactions between coaches and student-athletes have become a severe concern” and “any amorous or sexual relationship between coaches and student-athletes constitutes sexual abuse.”
Cooper: “The government enforces laws, and HR enforces policies.” “Your HR department is pointless if employees can’t speak out against the organization. Corporate America follows the law because of liability risks. Universities don’t want to be accountable for sexually attacked students, yet there’s no control. They can accomplish anything.”
Not just athletes say the NCAA and schools don’t safeguard student-athletes enough. NCAA attorneys agree.
The NCAA argued it had no legal duty to safeguard players in a case filed by the family of Derek Sheely, a Frostburg State football player who died in 2011 after falling at a team practice.
Mark Emmert later said his legal staff used “awful terms.” “I’m no lawyer,” he said. I won’t defend or refute a lawyer’s case. We have a moral commitment to safeguard and support student-athletes.”
Roger and Cindy Kravitz and their daughters Rachael and Heather met with the university’s senior vice-president of student affairs and senior assistant athletic director in November 2012.
Rachael and Heather were college soccer players. They feared Brad Evans was emotionally abusing his teammates. Roger and Cindy provided documents and expressed their concerns. Roger Kravitz remembers Andrews saying the university praised Evans.
Roger Kravitz remembers Andrews stating, “I have a box full.” “Why are they still here?” Why stay if it’s so bad?
Cindy said, “Because they’re innocent.”
According to the Kravitz family, the university showed little regard for the pupils’ mental health. Later, the university received sexual assault allegations against Evans.
Evans has never been charged over the claims, and the University of Toledo has no comment on the meeting.
Cooper thinks non-athletes don’t understand what a high-performance athlete is. “Not a game. It’s life-or-death. It’s close whether someone makes the team. Scholarships and not-scholarships. College athletes feel pressure because they support a multibillion-dollar industry without rights or protections.
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