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College Football This Fall Could Create Legal Troubles For NCAA

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We're going to go back now to what is still a raging debate during the coronavirus pandemic over how schools should operate. And, here, we're going to focus on collegiate student athletes. This week, North Carolina State University and the University of North Carolina announced they are shutting down in-person instruction for the fall semester. But both schools, which are in the Atlanta Coastal Conference, still plan to compete in football this season.

Now, we've been looking for different views about this beyond the question of to play or not to play, and we found Ellen Zavian. She is a former NFL agent and now a sports law professor at George Washington University who says this could bring a legal headache for the NCAA, which has long argued that student athletes are students first and not employees. And professor Zavian is with us now. Thank you so much for being with us.

ELLEN ZAVIAN: A pleasure.

MARTIN: So as we mentioned, UNC and NC State are suspending in-person classes but plan to go on with their football seasons. What was your reaction to that?

ZAVIAN: I went back to the NCAA mission just to double-check, and it does say to govern competition in a safe manner and that education is paramount to all others. And once I looked at that mission statement, I realized - how could they be fulfilling that?

MARTIN: Well, say more about that. Why do you say that? Do you just think, fundamentally, it's unsafe or any more unsafe than football normally is?

ZAVIAN: So it's unsafe in the sense that you've decided the student is not going to come to campus and then you've decided this student athlete is going to come to campus. So how do you determine safety, differently, for those two groups of people? You can't.

MARTIN: Have you been hearing from people who are concerned, maybe parents, for example, looking for some advice about what their students should do?

ZAVIAN: Yeah. I mean, some athletes are more concerned about bringing this home to their parents and their family. Other athletes feel the NCAA came out with this without telling them - what does this mean to their eligibility? Will they get additional opportunity to finish their education? So in order to make a decision, you've got to have those pros and cons outlined. And that's where the NCAA failed to execute that.

MARTIN: Do you have some thoughts about what a solution might be?

ZAVIAN: Yeah, I think that's where the conversation has to shift to - what are the solutions? I wrote an article about changing the structure of the NCAA, removing their nonprofit status because they're failing to meet their mission statement and maybe move them into something called a benefit corp, which gives the opportunity for a company to set aside 20% of their money to an escrow account for the athletes. If you go to the NCAA, the athletes fought when they were trying to unionize for the right to have a vote.

Well, the NCAA created a spot on the board, but they didn't give that spot a vote. And then the third thing would be to give the athletes legal representation. When you're asking them to sign "waivers" or "pledges" - and I use, quote, air quotes - so they have the knowledge and the sophistication to understand what they're actually signing and the consequences in return.

MARTIN: That's Ellen Zavian. She is a law professor at George Washington University. And I do want to mention she is a former commissioner for the Central Atlantic Collegiate Conference. Professor Zavian, thanks so much for talking to us.

ZAVIAN: Thanks for shedding light on this really important topic.

(SOUNDBITE OF FKJ AND TOM MISCH'S "LOSING MY WAY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.