Boston tries to be first city with 'College Athlete Bill of Rights'

Boston is trying to become the first city to provide health care and educational rights to college athletes beyond what the NCAA requires.

Jon Solomon
May 22, 2014

Boston is trying to become the first city to provide health care and educational rights to college athletes beyond what the NCAA requires.

Legislation has been enacted or proposed at the federal and state level for a “College Athlete Bill of Rights.” But Boston City Councilor Josh Zakim has taken the unique step of going local. He filed a pair of ordinances Friday related to the educational and health rights for athletes who play college sports in Boston. Among the potential laws for Boston universities:

• Athletes would receive as much as a fifth full year of institutional financial aid if they haven't graduated yet, assuming they are not academically ineligible or did not violate the university's student disciplinary policy. If an athletic scholarship is not renewed for a reason other than ineligibility or discipline, the university would have to provide an equivalent scholarship for up to five years.

• Universities would provide “comprehensive” year-round health insurance to all of its athletes so it “adequately covers their participation in the athletic program.” Also, universities would be responsible for athletes' post-college medical expenses or care resulting from a college injury.

• An independent neurotrauma consultant would assist the home and visiting team's medical staff in diagnosing head, neck or spine injuries. An athlete with concussion symptoms couldn't participate in Boston until cleared by a health care professional as determined by the Boston Public Health Commissioner. Athletes would have to provide the authorization to his or her athletic director.

Dan Sibor, Zakim's chief of staff, said the ordinances related to scholarships and health insurance would apply only to the three Boston schools with athletic scholarships: Boston College, Boston University and Northeastern University. The other items, such as issues related to head injuries, would apply to any NCAA school in Boston, including Harvard.

“The thing with Boston that's different than most cities is we have happen to have three Division I athletic programs in our city's borders,” Sibor said. “We're sort of in a unique position to do something about it. I know the federal government is looking at it, but like a lot of things, the federal government isn't to be relied upon to get much done.”

In 2012, California created a law that provides continuing education for players at schools with graduation rates under 60 percent. The law also requires schools to pay for insurance premiums and cover medical expenses for players up to two years after their eligibility expires. The bill essentially protects athletes only at the four Pac-12 schools in California because it's tied to how much media-rights revenue the schools make.

Connecticut has passed portions of some rights for athletes and introduced bills for additional rights. Rep. Tony Cardenas (D-Calif.) has introduced national legislation that would provide health benefits and protections nationally at high-revenue sports programs.

Ramogi Huma, president of the National College Players Association, said Boston's efforts go “far beyond” the efforts by California, Connecticut and Cardenas.

For instance, the California and Congressional laws have a trigger built in so if a school has poor graduation rates, another year of school can be provided to an athlete. The Boston law would essentially require schools to provide up to one extra year of a scholarship if an athlete has not yet graduated.

The California bill caps out-of-pocket medical expenses for athletes at two years after their college career ends. The Boston law would cover athletes over their lifetime for their college injuries.

“Those are significant differences that are much stronger than anything that has been proposed,” Huma said.

Huma, who is leading the efforts to form unions for college athletes, said Boston contacted him about trying to pass laws. “We hadn't really planned on this strategy of a city taking on this cause, but it's falling into our laps,” he said. “I'm sure there are many people in city councils across the country who want protections for athletes.”

The laws, if passed, could also impact visiting teams who play in Boston or NCAA-sanctioned events in the city.

“If Florida State plays at Boston College and Florida State doesn't have a policy that if someone is suspected to have a concussion they can't go back in a game, they'd be violating the city of Boston law if they return that player to the game,” Sibor said.

The home team in Boston would be required to pay for a neurotrauma consultant on call. Under the proposal, the injured player's medical staff would ultimately have the final call on a diagnosis.

“We wouldn't want to get into a situation where the visiting team's best player sits out because of the home team's independent neurotrauma consultant,” Sibor said.

Enforcement of the ordinances would be governed by the Boston Public Health Commission. A complaint would have to be filed and could result in fines. The Boston ordinances have the potential to provide a private right of action similar to what the courts allow in California, Sibor said.

Zakim will present both ordinances to the City Council on Wednesday before they are referred to a committee. Boston Mayor Marty Walsh would have to sign the ordinances.

Huma plans to testify at a hearing in Boston, which could take place in July or August. Universities, athletes and other stakeholders will be invited to participate, Sibor said.

As for whether the ordinances will pass and can survive intact, Sibor said he is “really optimistic” about the chances.

“We wanted to make it as expansive and comprehensive as we thought was right,” Sibor said. “Boston is a city that prides itself as an academic hub, a place where social justice is something that's ingrained in the values. We think we're a leader on it. We don't see it as particularly controversial, but we want to work with everyone involved.”

Huma said he expects pushback from the schools, as was the case in California. Attempts to get comments from the NCAA and athletic directors at Boston College, Boston University and Northeastern were not immediately successful.

The NCAA is preparing to change its governance structure so schools have the option of providing more benefits to athletes. The NCAA has been in settlement talks with several plaintiffs over concussion litigation.