WASHINGTON – Champion skier Jeremy Bloom (search) told a sympathetic congressional panel Tuesday that the NCAA cut his college football career short without giving him a fair chance to argue his case.
Bloom, who would have been a junior receiver at the University of Colorado this year, lost his college eligibility because of endorsement deals he received as a professional skier. He is a world champion in freestyle moguls and a 2002 Olympian.
Officials of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (search) called Bloom's endorsements willful violations of the rules, unlike similar cases that were deemed misunderstandings. They insisted Bloom had a fair hearing and every opportunity to state his side.
"In the NCAA, the judgment of the dispute is formed exclusively within the organization by their own members," Bloom told the House Judiciary Committee's panel on the Constitution. "They're the judge, the jury and the executioner."
Bloom's two-year fight with the NCAA ended two weeks before the regular season, when an NCAA panel turned down his final appeal to play football. NCAA rules allow athletes to accept salaries as professionals in other sports but not to accept money from sponsors.
NCAA spokesman Jason Christianson said Bloom got 10 minutes to make his final case during the appeals process. Before that, he was able to submit arguments in writing from various witnesses without limits.
Jo Potuto of the University of Nebraska, vice chairwoman of the NCAA's Committee on Infractions, said the organizing body for college sports gives student athletes due process as required by the Constitution (search). This is done, she said, despite court decisions that have rejected arguments that the NCAA is a "state actor" and therefore subject to these requirements.
"An even playing field means more than an evenhanded and consistent application of the rules on the field," Potuto said. "It also means an evenhanded and consistent application of the rules off the field."
Although Bloom's case got the most attention at the hearing, the larger question of whether Congress should tell the NCAA how it should investigate and adjudicate violations of association rules struck a personal chord with many members of the House panel.
Republican Rep. Spencer Bachus called the hearing after the NCAA imposed sanctions against two major college athletic programs in his home state of Alabama.
More than two years ago, the University of Alabama's football program was placed on probation, banned from bowl games and stripped of scholarships for recruiting violations.
This year, Auburn's basketball program was slapped with probation and a loss of a scholarship amid charges that an AAU coach improperly acted as a representative of the university by arranging to wire money to one high school prospect and get a car for another.
Bachus didn't bring up the Alabama or Auburn cases during questioning, but he accused the NCAA of trying to "poison the atmosphere" by citing the cases on the NCAA Web site in an article about the hearing.
Bachus asked Potuto why hearings by the NCAA's infractions committee are closed to the public. Potuto said a more open process would subject the schools and athletes under investigation to additional scorn and pressure through the media.
David Ridpath, an assistant professor of sport administration at Mississippi State University, said an even larger potential problem is a perceived conflict of interest during NCAA investigations. The NCAA is biased against a school's appeal because the organization made the charge the school is appealing, he said.
Ridpath filed a lawsuit alleging he was fired as an adjunct professor at Marshall University in an effort to silence him after he uncovered an improper employment scheme for student athletes at the school.
Member institutions either are afraid of the NCAA or too close to it, he said, creating a cartel-like process that seldom results in just decisions and often is used to "settle scores or cash chips in."
"It's an insider's game, just like the old fox guarding the hen house," Ridpath said. "College athletics is a very seductive business that has forced good people to do bad things and bad people to do worse things."