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College-athlete “fair treatment” bill picks up student support in UNC system

La’Quon Rogers, the new student-government president at East Carolina University, has convinced his counterparts at 10 other UNC system schools to back a pending bill in the N.C. General Assembly that would force officials to think about what constitutes fair treatment for the system’s college athletes.
La’Quon Rogers, the new student-government president at East Carolina University, has convinced his counterparts at 10 other UNC system schools to back a pending bill in the N.C. General Assembly that would force officials to think about what constitutes fair treatment for the system’s college athletes.

As it awaits action in the N.C. House, a bill calling for a legislative study of what constitutes “fair treatment for college student-athletes” in the UNC system is picking up more outside support.

Eleven of the 16 student-government presidents at the system’s universities have signed a letter that endorses the proposed study as “a step in the direction of” giving its college athletes a way “to voice their concerns and issues” about such matters as time demands, player health, finances and their legal rights.

East Carolina University’s new student-government president, La’Quon Rogers, instigated the move and argues that it makes sense for the state’s leaders to get involved.

“Nationally, there’s a discussion going on” about athletes’ rights, Rogers said. “For North Carolina to actually be taking action, sticking a leg in the discussion, that’s extremely responsible.”

One of the bill’s lead sponsors, state Sen. Jeff Tarte, R-Mecklenburg, remains optimistic about the bill’s chances this year after it cleared the state Senate on a 49-0 vote. Having support from student leaders, he said, “can’t hurt.”

For now, though, the bill’s stuck in the House’s rules committee, along with a parallel House bill that hasn’t received any sort of vote.

A long stay in the rules committee can signal that the chamber’s leaders don’t intend for a piece of legislation to move at all. But Tarte thinks the study measure may get back on track once the House and Senate complete work on the state’s fiscal 2017-18 budget.

For North Carolina to actually be taking action, sticking a leg in the discussion, that’s extremely responsible.

La’Quon Rogers, student government president at East Carolina University

Until then, “we’re in what’s referred to as ‘baseball-trading-card season,’” with members in both chambers busy collecting and giving IOUs to colleagues regarding the support and floor management of legislative proposals, Tarte said.

Once the budget’s complete, the remainder of the N.C. General Assembly’s 2017 session will unfold quickly.

“That’s the trigger event,” Tarte said. “We’re done no more than two weeks after the budget passes.”

The Senate study bill calls for the creation of a 13-member group, to be chaired by Lt. Gov. Dan Forest, to examine at least 11 major issues surrounding college sports, include the question of whether athletes should have the right to representation by a lawyer or agent throughout their college career and whether they should get “profit sharing” from their school for the use of their image.

The bill says the panel should include six senators and six House members, file an initial report by Dec. 1 and complete its work by next April. It envisions that the study could generate calls for additional legislation.

Rogers, the ECU student-government president, said he asked his colleagues to weigh in because it seemed like the bill’s legislative sponsors are “willing to put their money where their mouths are and fund” the study.

He added that on his campus, he and his aides “did talk to student-athletes [to] see what they thought” about the idea “and to make sure the wording was suitable.”

The endorsment letter picked up backing from those of Rogers’ counterparts who attended a recent retreat of the UNC Association of Student Governments. Signers included the new student-government presidents of UNC-Chapel Hill and N.C. Central University, Elizabeth Adkins and Michael Hopkins.

The omissions – student leaders from N.C. State University, Appalachian State, Elizabeth City State, UNC-Asheville and UNC-Pembroke – came mostly because those people didn’t make the meeting. But they’ve been advised of the move, and so far, “we haven’t heard from any of them saying they did not support it,” Rogers said, adding that one had signaled a desire to “see how it goes” before considering signing.

Tarte said that along with the student support, the events surrounding the recent transfer of men’s basketball player Cameron Johnson from the University of Pittsburgh to UNC-Chapel Hill is giving the bill’s supporters more arguments to use.

Johnson has completed his bachelor’s degree at Pitt, and sought to attend and play for UNC-CH as a graduate student. But officials at Pitt initially tried to force him to sit out the upcoming season. After Johnson mounted a countering public-relations battle, Pitt backed off and agreed late last week that he can play for Chapel Hill in 2017-18.

“This is a classic example of what this [study] looks to resolve,” Tarte said. “We need to make sure at the end of the day that student interests are being taken care of first and foremost.”

Ray Gronberg: 919-419-6648, @rcgronberg

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