Does NCAA have an­swers for Congress’ ques­tions?

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Four years ago, ex­as­per­a­tion crept into the voice of Rep. Linda T. Sanchez as she faced NFL com­mis­sioner Roger Good­ell in a con­gres­sional hear­ing.

The Cal­i­for­nia Demo­crat pumped her right arm for em­pha­sis.

“The NFL,” she said, “sort of re­minds me of the to­bacco com­pa­nies pre-’90s.”

The Big To­bacco com­par­i­son, as Sanchez ex­co­ri­ated the com­mis­sioner in front of tele­vi­sion cam­eras, re­mains one of the sig­na­ture mo­ments of the con­cus­sion cri­sis that swirls through the league.

And the ra­zor-edged words are im­por­tant to re­mem­ber af­ter Sanchez’s let­ter to NCAA pres­i­dent Mark Em­mert last week seek­ing an­swers about the or­ga­ni­za­tion’s pa­per-thin con­cus­sion pol­icy.

“I am writ­ing,” Sanchez wrote, “to ex­press my con­cern about the in­creas­ing num­ber of traumatic brain in­juries in col­lege foot­ball.”

The in­no­cent-sound­ing sen­tence should send a cold shiver down Em­mert’s spine.

These are dif­fi­cult days for the NCAA. The multi­bil­lion-dol­lar or­ga­ni­za­tion can’t es­cape a mag­netic at­trac­tion to bad pub­lic­ity. Re­mem­ber the NCAA-af­fil­i­ated web­site sell­ing jer­seys search­able by player name ear­lier this year? Or Em­mert’s boast that if you’re not be­ing sued, you’re not try­ing?

Add those to the plod­ding in­ves­ti­ga­tions. Head-scratch­ing rul­ings. Law­suits pile up, span­ning ev­ery­thing from the han­dling of con­cus­sions to al­low­ing ath­letes to share in the fi­nan­cial wind­fall gen­er­ated by their like­nesses. An or­ga­ni­za­tion chok­ing un­der 400-plus pages of rules that seem to shift from one case to the next.

The dys­func­tion has drawn the at­ten­tion of Congress.

Last week, Rep. Tony Cardenas, Cal­i­for­nia Demo­crat, and five co-spon­sors in­tro­duced a bill called “The Col­le­giate Stu­dent Ath­lete Pro­tec­tion Act.” Based on Cal­i­for­nia’s Stu­dent Ath­lete Bill of Rights, the leg­is­la­tion man­dates a pack­age of ben­e­fits for ath­letes at high­rev­enue schools, from guar­an­teed fouryear schol­ar­ships for col­li­sion sports to changes in the en­force­ment process to en­hanced ed­u­ca­tion about the longterm dan­gers from con­cus­sions.

In Au­gust, Reps. Charles W. Dent, Louisiana Repub­li­can, and Joyce Beatty, Ohio Demo­crat, brought in a sep­a­rate bill to man­date base­line con­cus­sion testing for col­lege ath­letes, ir­rev­o­ca­ble four-year schol­ar­ships and more.

In an era of par­ti­san grid­lock, NCAA re­form is an is­sue that ap­pears to cross party lines.

Sanchez’s let­ter didn’t draw the same at­ten­tion as the two pieces of leg­is­la­tion or Se­nate Ma­jor­ity Leader Harry Reid’s April com­ments sug­gest­ing Congress in­ves­ti­gate the NCAA’s cir­cuitous

en­force­ment process. But the con­se­quences of the six para­graphs are no less im­por­tant. “We must do bet­ter,” she wrote. Trou­bling de­tails about the death of Frost­burg State Univer­sity foot­ball player Derek Sheely af­ter a brain in­jury sus­tained in prac­tice in Au­gust 2011 prompted Sanchez’s mis­sive. The NCAA has been hit by at least six con­cus­sion-re­lated law­suits, in­clud­ing one by Sheely’s fam­ily, but has avoided the same at­ten­tion that has sur­rounded each step of the NFL’s pro­posed $765 mil­lion set­tle­ment af­ter more than 4,800 for­mer play­ers sued. But at least 29,000 ath­letes in NCAA-sanc­tioned sports suf­fered con­cus­sions from 2004 to 2009, more than 16,000 in foot­ball.

The NCAA’s re­sponse to the prob­lem, leg­is­lated in 2010, re­quires each school to have a con­cus­sion man­age­ment plan on file. That’s it.

Sanchez asked four ques­tions that, at first glance, sound in­nocu­ous. That’s not quite the case, how­ever.

The se­cond ques­tion is where the NCAA’s prob­lems start: “What is the NCAA do­ing to en­sure that mem­ber uni­ver­si­ties are fol­low­ing the 2010 NCAA pol­icy that re­quires them to draft con­cus­sion plans? And what are you do­ing to en­sure schools ad­here to this pro­to­col?” There’s no good an­swer. In­ter­nal NCAA emails and doc­u­ments made pub­lic ear­lier this year in con­nec­tion with a fed­eral law­suit ad­mit even the min­i­mal stan­dard of hav­ing that piece of pa­per on file isn’t dou­blechecked or en­forced. No school has been in­ves­ti­gated or pe­nal­ized for not fol­low­ing their plan. The en­tire ap­proach is a pa­per tiger. Even vanilla re­turn-to-play stan­dards are want­ing. An in­ter­nal NCAA sur­vey in 2010 found 39 per­cent of re­spond­ing schools had no guide­lines for ath­letes sit­ting out af­ter be­ing con­cussed. Less than 50 per­cent re­quired vis­it­ing a doc­tor be­fore be­ing cleared to re­turn.

The third ques­tion adds to the NCAA’s predica­ment: “Has the NCAA pe­nal­ized col­leges and uni­ver­si­ties that al­low stu­dent-ath­letes to par­tic­i­pate in a game af­ter be­ing in­jured or be­ing di­ag­nosed with a con­cus­sion? If so, what are the penal­ties?”

These aren’t the ca­sual ques­tions of a let­ter be­tween friends, but, in­stead, pointed ones that cut to ba­sic steps that aren’t be­ing taken to pro­tect col­lege ath­letes by the or­ga­ni­za­tion that os­ten­si­bly ex­ists to pro­tect them.

Sanchez’s long-run­ning in­ter­est in the is­sue ex­tends to 2007 hear­ings on the NFL’s dis­abil­ity plan’s im­pact on re­tired play­ers. Brain in­juries aren’t a new in­ter­est for her.

Watch the tape of the 2009 hear­ings as Good­ell stam­mered and squirmed about ques­tions he couldn’t an­swer and you won­der what’s in store for Em­mert.

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