While I can’t say this is inevitable, I can’t say it surprises me, either.
… For decades, the NCAA has held that the players we watch in January’s college football championship, or this month’s March Madness, are “student-athletes,” part of a tradition older than the United States. The “Principle of Amateurism,” according to the NCAA’s Division I Manual, dictates that the participation of “student-athletes” is “an avocation, and student-athletes should be protected from exploitation by professional and commercial enterprises.” But the enforcement of the amateur ideal has left some players questioning whether the association really has their best interests at heart. (The NCAA declined Salon’s request for comment.)
Former UCLA power forward James Keefe, who played in the Final Four in 2007 and 2008, says that while it was “a great opportunity … at the same time, it’s just amazing how much money’s being made, and how little of that has trickled down to what I think the athletes need.” Keefe recalls “players that were having a lot of trouble making ends meet,” and athletes disciplined for infractions as small as accepting a free sandwich from a fan. Since graduating in 2010, Keefe has been playing professional basketball in Spain and Japan.
“I don’t think that student-athletes should be able to be exploited in the way that they are,” says Anthony Mosely, who just finished his last season as a cornerback at the University of Kentucky and hopes to be drafted into the NFL in May. Mosely describes athletes anxiously waiting for federal financial aid checks to help close the gap between their stipends and their expenses…
I confess to being troubled by it. Not because I’m anti-players’ unions (I’m not, FWIW) or because I don’t believe student-athletes – or, at least some student-athletes – are being exploited (of course they are). And it’s not because I think the NCAA and its member institutions are on the side of the angels. Two minutes in a room with Mark Emmert will disabuse any rational human being of that notion.
No, my concern is that I don’t see how it’s workable.
If all a college players’ union would be about is plucking the low hanging fruit, such as gaining control over their likenesses and insuring that injured players receive appropriate medical treatment paid by the schools, I might not bat an eye. But we all know where things would head, don’t we?
… College sports is a big business. In October, Huma and Drexel University Sport Management Professor Ellen Staurowsky released a study calculating that new TV contracts negotiated since 2007 will bring $1.8 billion in annual revenue to the NCAA and five major athletic conferences. With the Big East TV contract up for renegotiation next year, there’s more on the way. As for the “student-athletes” who make it possible, they’re compensated with scholarships. Until November, schools were barred from providing any additional compensation; now some athletes can receive stipends up to $2,000.
Eventually, they’re gonna go where the money is. It’s too tempting not to.
The problem is that college sports aren’t a monolith like professional leagues are. It’s easy to focus on the areas where conferences have common interests, such as postseason play. But the biggest source of athletic revenue for colleges is regular season TV money. And as to that, it’s every conference for itself, as the latest rounds of realignment painfully demonstrate. That’s why there are haves and have-nots in college sports. So what happens in a world where some schools/conferences can afford to pay football players and some can’t? (Remember the recent vote on Emmert’s $2000 stipend? We’re talking about a lot more money here, potentially.)
That’s not just the case with the conferences. It’s also what goes on within the various sports themselves. Very few sports generate positive cash flow for schools. The reality is that football and men’s basketball foot the bill for almost every other sport schools field – if they’re lucky. Get down in the lower trenches of D-1 and you may not even be able to say that. So what happens when some athletes unionize and others don’t (or, more likely, aren’t invited to)?
Then, toss this into the mix.
… Most NCAA teams are at public universities, where unionization efforts would fall under the jurisdiction of state labor boards, not the National Labor Relations Board. While some state laws are to the right of the NLRB (some even ban public sector union recognition), others have been more pro-union than the federal agency. Fram and Frampton cite the example of university graduate students who receive stipends while serving as teaching assistants or researchers. The NLRB didn’t recognize them as workers until 2000, and in 2004 Bush NLRB appointees took that recognition away. Meanwhile, their counterparts at public universities have had union recognition in many states for decades…
That’s a mess. And that’s before you get to Title IX objections.
One more thing to consider: what happens when players do strike? Do they have their scholarships cut off? What about university housing and food services? It’s one thing to say that if they want to be treated as part of a business, then that’s part of the deal, but it’s also a world where some coaches do make promises to parents about their kids that they want to keep. I don’t know how schools will be able to reconcile that. You’d like to think there’s a better way to accomplish treating student-athletes fairly, but what if nothing short of unionization gets the NCAA to give a little?
It sure would be a lot easier if the pros would step up to the plate and assume responsibility for their own player development with kids coming out of high school. But we all know that they have zero incentive to do so. What we’re left with is an increasingly creaky model that the NCAA struggles to maintain. Sooner or later, something’s got to give. I wonder how most of us will like the result.