N.C. Senate taking up ‘fair treatment’ bill for college athletes

Helped by a former N.C. Supreme Court justice, a group of legislators are laying the groundwork for future lawmaking they argue will see to the “fair treatment of college student-athletes” in the UNC system.

On Wednesday, a bill calling for a legislative study of the issue emerged from the N.C. Senate’s rules committee, the chamber’s leadership-controlled gatekeeper, and wound up on the calendar for a vote during the evening’s scheduled meeting of the full Senate.

Given that the rules committee released it, “I think it’ll pass,” said Sen. Jeff Tarte, R-Mecklenburg, one of the bill’s lead sponsors. “At least it’ll get to the other side for the [N.C.] House to discuss and give us options to move forward.”

The bill would set up a special study commission, to be chaired by Lt. Gov. Dan Forest, to consider matters broadly involving health insurance, player injuries, unionization and “profit-sharing for student-athletes,” and report back by next April with any suggestions for future lawmaking. That would enable legislators to consider the panel’s ideas during their 2018 session.

In the Senate, the study bill’s lead sponsors also include Sens. Warren Daniel, a West Point and UNC School of Law grad from Burke County, and Dan Bishop, from Mecklenburg County. Like Tarte, they’re Republicans, as is former state Supreme Court Justice Bob Orr, who acknowledged having given sponsors “my thoughts on the range of issues out there nationally involving college athletes and the system they’re involved with through the NCAA.”

Orr is no stranger to the issue because he’s been one of the lawyers who have represented former UNC-Chapel Hill football and basketball players who’ve sued the university over the so-called “paper classes” academic fraud.

As filed, and as it was to reach the Senate floor, the bill counsels UNC-Charlotte alumnus Forest and 12 yet-to-be-named legislators drawn equally from the House and Senate to delve into four broad issues. The one most obviously inspired by the paper-classes scandal concerns time demands on student-athletes and their rights to “be taught at an academic level consistent with” usual institutional standards.

Another concern, player health, is tied to the worries about “concussions and other life-impacting injuries” they suffer in workout rooms, on the practice field and in games.

A third resolves around players’ legal rights, particularly their right to “be adequately represented by attorneys, agents or financial advisers throughout their college careers (as do all other students) without” losing their eligibility to play.

The fourth big basket of issues involves finances, including the possibility of “profit sharing” from a university’s sale of clothing, television rights and students’ images.

Many of those issues are traditionally within the purview of the NCAA, a private organization, and the bill as drafted only speaks to UNC’s campuses, not private institutions like Duke University or Wake Forest University.

But Orr, like Bishop a so-called “double Tar Heel” with undergraduate and law degrees from UNC-Chapel Hill, said the proposed study could prod organizations beyond just UNC’s 16 university campuses to begin dealing with a festering set of problems.

“People need to be talking about it and the leadership of universities need to be addressing it,” Orr said, meaning both public and private ones. “I’ve said on many occasions there’s been an abysmal failure on the part of the leadership of higher education to significantly address the inequities and problems in big-time college sports.”

“We’re trying to balance student-athletes against the athletic business at the collegiate level,” added Tarte, a University of Illinois alumnus.

The bill is one of several pending in the General Assembly that speak to issues involving the NCAA. There’s been speculation that legislative anger at the organization’s involvement in the House Bill 2 controversy on the opposition side is behind at least some of them. But Tarte said he doesn’t think that’s a factor “on this particular bill,” and Orr likewise downplayed it.

“There are lawsuits all across this country, articles published in the media day in and day out, that have highlighted the problems of big-time college athletics,” Orr said. “Not the least of which is the ongoing NCAA investigation of UNC. It’s legitimate for our legislature, and frankly legislators in other states, to take a very serious look at what’s happening to those young men and women who are under their charge as students at our universities.”

UNC officials, for now, aren’t saying anything in public about the proposal.

“We’re still reviewing this bill and don’t have any comment at this time,” said Josh Ellis, associate vice president for media relations in the system office.

Ray Gronberg: 919-419-6648, @rcgronberg