Andrew Cooper, from college star to activist: ‘The NCAA does not exist to protect athletes’

Let’s be clear – Andrew Cooper is no fan of the National Collegiate Athletic Association. A former track and cross-country runner at Washington State University and the University of California, Berkeley, Cooper’s experience as an athlete at top American universities provided him with a critical eye of how the NCAA governs college sports. As a long-distance runner, Cooper has had plenty of time to think. And he believes the structure, system, and priorities of US college sports need a reboot.

Cooper served inside the machine as president of the NCAA’s Student-Athlete Advisory Council at WSU and UC Berkeley. Today, he is an athletes’ rights activist who sees systemic failure in how universities and the NCAA handle issues around mental health and sexual abuse allegations. Cooper sees patterns.

“The issue is that universities have processes in place and make empty claims about protecting athletes and protecting students,” Cooper says. “Universities are trusted to regulate themselves but they benefit from covering up sexual assault. There is a crisis in America around self-regulation.

“The universities care [about athletes] until it potentially impacts their reputation and their revenue. Once allegations impact a university’s reputation and revenue, suddenly it impacts an individual’s job. If your job hinges on protecting the university’s reputation or revenue then you are going to make every effort possible to protect the reputation and revenue of your source of income. Anyone taking a Policy 101 course would immediately realize that it is obvious that an institution would protect its own interests at the expense of workers or students who are negatively impacted by an event.”

And there’s plenty of income to protect. For example, this summer the 16-university Big Ten conference agreed a seven-year media rights agreement with Fox, CBS and NBC worth more than $7bn that will see each university receive $80m-$100m per year. At the highest level, NCAA-governed college sports is a huge business.

Over 1,000 universities and colleges fall under the administrative control of the NCAA. The NCAA has its own regulations and rules for sports on and off the field that often differ from international governing bodies. College basketball rules differ from the NBA, so too soccer from Fifa’s laws of the game (one quirk is a timekeeping countdown clock). A labyrinth of regulations exist concerning amateurism (athletes are not paid a salary), athlete eligibility, playing time, and exploitation of image rights. There is not, however, any clear umbrella policy for reporting sexual harassment allegations through the NCAA. Universities and colleges are self-regulating which, to Cooper’s point and the experience of many athletes and young coaches (as recently reported at the University of Toledo), often fails athletes.

“Why does the NCAA exist?” Cooper asks. “Not to protect athletes. It is supposed to exist to protect college athletes and regulate college sports. That is why it was founded in 1906.”

Then named the Intercollegiate Athletic Association of the United State, the NCAA was born from a crisis. According to the NCAA’s website, there were 18 deaths and 159 serious injuries during the 1905 college football season. President Theodore Roosevelt called on colleges to address the safety of football players and rules intended to stem deaths on the field were established among 13 colleges.

Cooper points to how Michigan State University dealt with now-convicted rapist Larry Nassar as an example of how some institutions deal with sexual assault allegations, sometimes at great expense. Nassar was employed as a doctor by MSU and as head athletic trainer for the United States Gymnastics national team for 18 years. In 2018, MSU (or, rather, its insurers) agreed to pay $500m to settle lawsuits from 332 Nassar victims, a list that included many young athletes. In 2014 a former cheerleader reported abuse by Nassar to MSU officials, but the university initially ruled the doctor’s invasive digital “pelvic floor” treatments were medically appropriate. The NCAA cleared MSU of any violations in how it handled sexual assault allegations Nassar, and the university has said that accusations it engaged in a cover-up are “simply false”.

“Larry Nassar was one of the biggest sexual assault trials in history,” Cooper says. “He assaulted hundreds of women. So, what happens when a person in position of power sexually assaults a student? Are they held accountable? Is the school liable?”

In 2021, after a five-year investigation, the NCAA said Baylor University, a private Christian university in Texas, had a “campus-wide culture of sexual violence,” after several football players were convicted of rape after incidents that led to the firing of the team’s coach and resignation of then university president Ken Starr. Starr, who died in September, was the former Solicitor General of the United States who led an investigation during the 1990s into Bill Clinton that included his relationship with Monica Lewinsky.

But the NCAA did not penalize the university even after officials failed to report sexual assault claims against the football players between 2010 and 2015. “Baylor admitted to moral and ethical failings in its handling of sexual and interpersonal violence on campus but argued those failings, however egregious, did not constitute violations of NCAA rules,” the NCAA said at the time. The NCAA committee investigating Baylor said that it could not hand down a punishment because the university’s failings were not limited to its athletes and were part of a wider problem on campus.

“The NCAA refused to punish Michigan State and refused to punish Baylor who actively covered up [crimes],” Cooper says. “The NCAA simply exists to protect universities and tier interests.”

The NCAA did not respond to multiple requests for interviews and comment on how it handles sexual harassment and sexual assault allegation within college sports. A policy paper released by the organization’s Committee on Women’s Athletics does exist and established the organization considers that “sexual relationships between coaches and student-athletes have become a serious problem” and “any amorous or sexual relationship between coaches and student-athletes constitutes sexual abuse”.

“A law is enforced by the government and a policy is enforced by the human resources department,” says Cooper. “If your human resources department has zero protections for speaking out against the institution then it is essentially worthless. Corporate America follows the law most of the time because there is a liability risk if they don’t. Universities do not want to be liable for damages to students who are sexually assaulted by a professor or a coach [but] there is no oversight. They can do whatever they want.”

It’s not just athletes who claim the NCAA and institutions do not always protect student-athletes as thoroughly as they should. The NCAA’s own lawyers have suggested as much. In mounting a defense against a lawsuit from the family of Derek Sheely, a football player at Frostburg State university who died in 2011 after collapsing at a team practice, the NCAA’s central legal argument was that it had no legal duty to protect athletes. NCAA president Mark Emmert later claimed his legal team employed “a terrible choice of words”. He added: “I’m not a lawyer. I’m not going to defend or deny what a lawyer wrote in a lawsuit. I will unequivocally state we have a clear moral obligation to make sure we do everything we can to protect and support student-athletes.”

In November 2012, Roger and Cindy Kravitz and their two daughters Rachael and Heather attended a meeting at the University of Toledo with Dr Kay Patten Wallace, the University of Toledo’s senior vice-president of student affairs and Kelly Andrews, the university’s senior associate athletic director. Rachael and Heather were students at the university and part of the women’s soccer program. They had concerns about the behavior of soccer coach Brad Evans and believed he was emotionally abusing players. As Roger and Cindy recall, they brought documentation to the meeting and described their concerns. Roger Kravitz recalls Andrews countering that the university had received glowing reports of Evans.

“I can show you a box full of them,” Roger Kravitz recalls Andrews saying. “Why are your kids still here? Why don’t they leave if it is that bad?”

Cindy responded: “Because they have done nothing wrong”.

To the Kravitz family, there seemed little concern from the university about how Evans’ behavior was affecting the mental health of the students. A few years later, the university would receive more allegations about Evans, including sexual assault. Evans has never been charged over any of the allegations against him, and the University of Toledo said it has no further comment on the meeting.

“Non-athletes have no concept of what it is to be a high performance athlete,” says Cooper. “It is not play. It feels like life and death. It is a razor-thin margin between being on the team and not being on the team. Being on a scholarship and not being on a scholarship. The pressure college athletes face is caused by the multibillion dollar industry that college athletes uphold but without any rights or protections whatsoever.”