Today’s guest columnist is University of Illinois professor Michael H. LeRoy.
Concordia University in Chicago made national headlines when the Chicago Tribune reported that five players on its men’s basketball team needed hospital treatment after a workout in early January that some allege was intended to punish the players for a curfew violation.
This type of mistreatment is more common than we realize. Similar to the Concordia situation, Grambling State basketball players were subjected to a punitive workout in 2009, but the outcomes were more severe. One player died, and another player incurred permanent injuries.
But when it comes to reporting these problems and seeking remedies, college players are limited by their amateur status, which restricts the ways athletes can access courts and employment-law agencies. While the mother of the deceased player on Grambling State was awarded over $1.5 million in damages for wrongful death, and the surviving player was awarded $2 million for permanent physical and psychological disabilities, my research found that courts dismissed most legal challenges by players and parents.
As part of a law review article on the topic, I created a database of lawsuits against colleges and universities that highlighted five key findings:
- Player-coach interactions are the most common source of legal disputes involving harassment and abuse.
- Sexual assault by athletes, and to a smaller degree by coaches, are pervasive in college sports.
- Women are disproportionately plaintiffs in harassment and abuse cases.
- Negligence laws often fail to protect male plaintiffs in these abuse and injury cases.
- Litigation involving harassment and abuse of college athletes is rapidly increasing.
If college players were considered employees, they could sue in court or file a complaint with an employment discrimination agency for sexual harassment and assault situations. This would lead to an external investigation. As a result, more coaches would be held accountable for misconduct.
For cases involving abuse or injuries incurred in practice or competitions, employment would allow college players to receive worker’s compensation—especially important for injuries that create permanent disabilities for which schools do not pay.
When Fred Rensing, an Indiana State University football player, was paralyzed during a practice in 1976, the Indiana Supreme Court ruled that Rensing was an amateur athlete by NCAA rules. He therefore was not an employee and as a result, was ineligible for worker’s compensation. This case is widely cited as legal precedent to deny college players compensation for injuries.
I did research that found athletic departments often impede or control investigations where their athletes or coaches are alleged to harm students. In Doe v. University of Tennessee, several women alleged that from 2013 through 2016 they were raped by football and basketball players, and they had evidence that a vice chancellor’s efforts to address these concerns to the chancellor were repeatedly rebuffed.
My research also presented case studies showing how athletic departments internally control complaints—one involving alleged sexual assault in the Iowa football program in 2007, and one involving alleged player mistreatment in the Illinois men’s basketball program in 2018.
I concluded that an “employment relationship would subject a university or college to more robust enforcement under federal and state discrimination laws.”
A few solutions have been proposed to help remedy this situation. The College Athletes Bill of Rights bill (called CABOR), proposed by Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) in 2022, would require schools with more than $20 million in annual athletic revenue to provide athletes non-wage benefits, such as medical care for a limited time after athletes exhaust their NCAA eligibility. However, these benefits would not offer athletes the robust protections afforded to employees. Perhaps the best protection for athletes in CABOR would result from making trainers and medical staff autonomous from coaches. Interference with training and medical staff would expose a school to “a civil penalty equal to 30 percent of the total athletic revenue generated by the institution.”
In November 2022, New York enacted a law that created wide-ranging economic rights and protections for college athletes. Mostly, it relates to NIL and agents representing students while they are still competing in college. However, the new law also provides weak half-measures to shield athletes from coaching abuse by requiring schools to provide “student-athletes services in the form of … assistance in mental health, discrimination and harassment training, and leadership training.”
Maryland’s HB 548, passed in 2020, appears to be the best of a mediocre lot of state laws meant to address the problems of holding coaches, athletic directors and/or universities accountable for mistreating, harassing and/or abusing athletes.
Mirroring research I did in 2012, HB 548 requires the state’s higher education labor board to adopt regulations for limited collective bargaining for college athletes. Good-faith negotiations are required for non-wage subjects—scholarship terms, health insurance benefits, NIL, and establishment of an independent student athlete advocate.
While better than nothing, this tepid law falls short of my proposal in 2012 to enact a law that provides athletes “a grievance system that protects them from abusive coaching behaviors.”
None of these legislative reforms—including the proposal for limited collective bargaining rights—would provide robust investigations outside the control of schools. Nor would they hold coaches financially accountable for harming athletes directly or hold athletic directors and senior campus leaders legally responsible for retaliating against athletes who report abuse.
Urban Meyer gave us insight to the abuse and mistreatment that college athletes take. During his failed season as head coach of the Jacksonville Jaguars—he was fired just 13 games into the season—he repeatedly kicked Josh Lambo’s legs while verbally abusing the Jags kicker, reportedly telling Lambo, “I’m the head ball coach, I’ll kick you whenever the f–k I want.”
This tactic might succeed in college, where players are at the mercy of abusive coaches. But Meyer’s tactics were quickly exposed in the NFL—a league where employment rights make players too valuable to mistreat or abuse, and where employment rights protect players who report these problems.
Michael H. LeRoy, a professor at the University of Illinois, has published multiple law review articles on college sports, as well as the book, Collective Bargaining in Sports & Entertainment: Professional Skills and Business Strategies.