Connecticut continues to be on the cutting edge of collegiate sports law, again following in the footsteps of California by introducing legislation to protect student-athletes. Proposed Bill 205, An Act Concerning Scholarships for Student Athletes at Public Institutions of Higher Education (the “Connecticut Act”), if it becomes law, would assist student-athletes whose scholarships have not been renewed due to injury or illness or whose eligibility has expired.
The Connecticut Act marks the second time that the General Assembly has inserted itself into an area traditionally governed by colleges, universities, conferences and, of course, the NCAA. In 2011, the Connecticut General Assembly passed the Student-Athletes’ Right to Know Act (the “Right to Know Act”), making Connecticut the second state to adopt this law, after California. The legislation, backed by the National College Players Association, was intended to provide student-athletes and their parents with a more complete picture of what is, and what is not, included in an athletic scholarship. The Right to Know Act requires disclosure and transparency by colleges and universities, but for all of its benefits it did not effect significant change.
The Student-Athletes’ Bill of Rights (the “Bill of Rights”), passed by the California State Legislature last year, goes far beyond the somewhat passive nature of the Right to Know Act. The Bill of Rights requires schools that receive at least $10 million in media revenue to provide the following: (1) academic scholarships for student-athletes who lose their athletic scholarships due to injury or illness; (2) academic scholarships for certain student-athletes who have exhausted their athletic eligibility; (3) a financial skills workshop for all first- and third-year student-athletes; (4) a requirement that schools respond to transfer requests from student-athletes within seven days; (5) payment of health insurance premiums for needy student-athletes; (6) payment of insurance deductibles and ongoing medical treatment for student-athletes who are injured; and (7) guidelines to prevent, assess and treat sports-related concussions and dehydration. The schools immediately impacted by this law include the University of Southern California, Stanford University and the University of California at Los Angeles and Berkeley, respectively.
Connecticut State Senator Martin M. Looney has introduced the Connecticut Act, which mirrors two provisions of California’s Bill of Rights. Proposed Bill 205 states as follows:
Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives in General Assembly convened:
That title 10a of the general statutes be amended to require public institutions of higher education receiving, through media rights, revenue in an amount not less than five million dollars per year to use such revenue to provide academic scholarships to student athletes whose athletic scholarships are not renewed due to incapacitating injury or illness resulting from participation in the school athletic program or who have exhausted their National Collegiate Athletic Association athletic eligibility but are still in good academic standing and pursuing a degree.
The statement of purpose of the Connecticut Act is “[t]o increase graduation rates of student athletes at public institutions of higher education.”
Similar to the California law, the Connecticut Act only applies once a school reaches a threshold amount of media revenue. In Connecticut’s case that number would be $5 million as opposed to $10 million in California. Also, similar to California’s law, the Connecticut Act would require covered schools to provide academic scholarships to (1) student-athletes whose athletic scholarships are not renewed due to incapacitating injury or illness resulting from participation in athletics; and (2) student-athletes who have exhausted their NCAA athletic eligibility but are still in good academic standing and pursuing a degree.
Although the Bill of Rights applies to four California schools, with the reported potential for a fifth (San Diego State University), the Connecticut Act likely applies to a single school: the University of Connecticut (UConn). Accordingly, UConn may argue against the passage of the Connecticut Act on the grounds that it treats UConn differently than any other school, public or private. In addition, UConn may argue that the Connecticut Act’s statement of purpose, to improve graduation rates, may be accomplished through institutional and NCAA controls.
Although UConn may be able to improve graduation rates without the intervention of the General Assembly, the NCAA and its member institutions have proven themselves incapable of protecting the rights of student-athletes. Therefore, the General Assembly should proceed with the Connecticut Act, although it should amend the legislation’s statement of purpose. The statement of purpose for the Connecticut Act should be to build upon the Right to Know Act and protect the student-athletes who contribute to the media revenue received by public institutions.
As noted by the California State Legislature, “the future for most student athletes is far from certain. Due to NCAA rules and a lack of state law, universities often neglect to pay for the medical care of injured student athletes. Additionally, universities can choose to not renew an injured student athlete’s scholarship. Saddling a student with medical bills and taking away scholarships can easily push a student out of college….” It should be noted that UConn, according to its Right to Know Act disclosure, normally renews scholarships for student-athletes who suffer a career-ending injury provided that the student-athlete agrees to perform alternate tasks within the Athletic Department.
The Connecticut Act may only affect UConn and its student-athletes, but UConn can certainly afford it. In 2008, UConn entered into a ten-year contract worth $80 million with IMG College to manage all of UConn’s media rights. The General Assembly must decide whether, as a matter of policy, some of these funds should be set aside to protect the student-athletes who have helped build and promote the UConn brand.
The Connecticut Act is in the early stages of the legislative process, and is currently before the Joint Committee on Higher Education and Employment Advancement. It bears watching whether the Connecticut General Assembly is willing to act where the NCAA has generally failed to do so, and continue to create laws designed to protect student-athletes.