The NCAA will review its stance regarding athletes accused or convicted of sexual assault, the college sports organization said Wednesday, amid pressure from Congress calling for an independent study of the NCAA's lack of accountability for such athletes.
Both the congressional call and the NCAA's commitment to reviewing its policies come on the heels of a USA TODAY Network investigation that exposed how college athletes can keep playing sports even after being found responsible for sexual assault.
The NCAA notoriously metes out punishments to student athletes for bad grades, smoking marijuana or accepting money and free meals. But nowhere in its 440-page Division I rulebook does it cite penalties for sexual, violent or criminal misconduct, the USA TODAY Network found.
Even when suspended or expelled from school for rape, NCAA athletes can transfer elsewhere and continue playing.
U.S. Rep. Donna Shalala, D-Florida, wants to change that. She, along with U.S. Rep. Ross Spano, R-Florida, introduced a bill requesting the study on Dec. 19.
Called the Congressional Advisory Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics (CACIA) Act, the measure would establish a two-year independent commission to review, among other issues, “the NCAA’s lack of accountability for athletes who commit sexual assault, other serious misconduct, and the practice of transferring to other institutions,” said Christofer Horta, a legislative assistant for Shalala.
There is “no question” that the NCAA should have a personal conduct policy for athletes and strict transfer regulations, Shalala told the USA TODAY Network.
“That really goes to not only the integrity of the NCAA but the integrity of the colleges themselves,” Shalala said. “The NCAA clearly does not have clear rules on sexual assault and transferability. What we’re interested in is everyone being accountable for their behavior, and for the NCAA to be accountable specifically for the behavior of athletes.”
The bill, H.R. 5528, has been assigned to the House Committee on Education and Labor. If enacted, the commission also would examine the NCAA’s amateurism rules, athletic department finances, safety protocols and other issues in college sports.
“The NCAA is actively working with members of Congress, including Congresswoman Shalala, on finding appropriate ways to modernize our rules,” NCAA spokesman Chris Radford said in response to questions from the USA TODAY Network.
“At its upcoming meeting this month, the Board of Governors will review and examine NCAA policies regarding those accused and/or convicted of sexual assault in an ongoing effort to provide guidance at the campus, conference, and national level,” Radford said.
The Board of Governors – the NCAA’s highest governance body, comprised of 19 university presidents, chancellors and athletic directors – has been aware of the issue for years. But it has resisted previous calls by eight U.S. senators and its own study commission to fix it.
An NCAA study group, the Commission to Combat Campus Sexual Violence, in 2018 advocated for the organization to tie athlete eligibility to behavior.
But the Board of Governors disbanded the group instead. It promised to “continue to monitor and track on sexual violence issues,” minutes from its August 2018 meeting show. It has taken no action since then.
National Organization for Women President Toni Van Pelt said in a statement that the CACIA Act “will hold the NCAA accountable and work towards ending a serious predator pipeline.”
“We are finally seeing some hope for change,” Van Pelt said. “NOW strongly supports the demand for the equal enforcement of rules, laws and regulations especially when it comes to Title IX requirements, criminal behavior and violence against women. Enough is enough.”
A USA TODAY Network four-part series published Dec. 12 called “Predator Pipeline” found at least 33 athletes since 2014 who have transferred to NCAA schools despite being administratively or criminally disciplined for sexual offenses at a previous college.
One of them is Alex Figueroa, a University of Miami football player accused of gang rape in 2014, when Shalala was the university president, a position she held from 2001 to 2015. The university expelled Figueroa, and later he accepted a deferred prosecution agreement for felony sexual battery with multiple perpetrators.
But like many athletes disciplined for sexual assault, Figueroa managed to find acceptance at another NCAA school.
After two seasons at Garden City Community College in Kansas, Figueroa played another two years at the University of Central Oklahoma under head coach Nick Bobeck. In a previous statement, Bobeck said Figueroa was an exemplary student-athlete while on his team and that a university review during his recruitment determined he was “not a threat to the campus community.”
The congressional commission, Shalala said, would examine whether athletes like Figueroa should be permanently banned from intercollegiate athletics or subject to some other punishment from the NCAA. It would report back to Congress, make recommendations to the NCAA and determine what legislation to issue.
The commission also would review another issue the newspaper investigation identified — insufficient background checks for incoming transfers, Shalala said.
“Predator Pipeline” found several schools claiming ignorance that athletes on their rosters had been disciplined for sexual misconduct by previous institutions. Such confusion could have been avoided had they requested the recruits’ disciplinary records, but none did so until after the USA TODAY Network brought the matters to their attention, they said.
An easy fix would be to require schools to obtain past disciplinary records for prospective transfer-students, Shalala said, though any legislation on that issue would likely cover all students as opposed to only athletes.
“My bill specifically covers these shortfalls,” Shalala said.
A handful of NCAA conferences and individual schools already have adopted policies that ban athletes found responsible for serious misconduct. Only one existing policy, the Tracy Rule, requires schools to request athletes’ past disciplinary records.
The University of Texas at San Antonio in September became the first school to implement the rule, named for Brenda Tracy, a survivor advocate who reported being gang-raped by college football players in 1998 and went public with her story 16 years later.
Slippery Rock University, an NCAA Division II school in Pennsylvania, announced last month that it also will adopt the Tracy Rule. It did so after the USA TODAY Network’s investigation revealed it had recruited an athlete found responsible for rape at his last school.
“Despite receiving over $130 billion in federal subsidies, the NCAA continues to willfully ignore the problem of violent athletes,” said Tracy. “I hope Congress can serve as an advocate for these student-athletes because clearly the NCAA doesn’t care about the violence student-athletes are experiencing or perpetrating.”
Ex-University of Idaho diver Mairin Jameson reported a fellow athlete, Idaho football player Jahrie Level, for sexually assaulting her in 2013. Although Idaho expelled him, Level transferred before the ruling to Stony Brook University in New York, where he played two more years without losing any playing time.
“Congress is choosing to do what the NCAA will not do, which is assess the risks these perpetrators bring to all students on campuses across the country and acting appropriately to negate future assaults,” Jameson said. “This is a step in the right direction, but we need to do more to create positive change.”
Asked about the USA TODAY Network’s investigation at an Aspen Institute symposium last month, NCAA President Mark Emmert blamed universities for failing to act.
The 19 college and university leaders who sit on the NCAA’s Board of Governors, however, ignored requests for comment or referred questions to the NCAA.
The NCAA and its member universities’ inaction, Shalala said, shows why an independent congressional commission is necessary.
“My view is that we need across-the-board accountability,” Shalala said. “That’s why Congress has to step in.”