Look for the union label

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.


Filed under It's Just Bidness, The NCAA

12 responses to “Look for the union label

  1. Keese

    I expect the next groundswell of controversy in NCAA to focus on this. Attorneys become player advocates trying to enter the sweepstakes and even the playing field


  2. How about a simple solution to this problem? Let the players trade on their likenesses and have jobs with full disclosure of who’s paying the freight and how much and the institution stays out of the arrangements. Give a stipend and remind the players that they have a pretty sweet deal for development and life after sports if they take advantage of it with the coaching, strength & conditioning, media exposure, education opportunity, and college lifestyle. If lawyers want to turn student-athletes into employees, I would say that they would, therefore, need to be taxed on the value of all of the benefits received as a student-athlete (probably $5K-$10K per year just on the base scholarship).

    The NFL and NBA are not going to go down the road of setting up a minor league system. If MLB could have the same system (with the wood bat in college), they would probably disassemble the minor league baseball system at the drop of a hat.


    • Cojones

      As a scientist/grad student at UGA I would be offended if you didn’t compensate for publication of my work in a nationally renowned journal in my field of study. I also would like to have my work compensated for publication in the 2nd ed.basic textbook of my field that was used across the country. It carries my name and my major professor’s name alongside The University of Georgia referenced on the text page as well as the Reference section. My introduction to basic knowledge in my field was through the first edition of this book. Other representative features of my journal publications were requested and honored for publication in the basic textbook in my field by authors in the country of origin of my basic scientific field. Another request was received and honored for republication in Canada. The work was presented orally, recognized and honored regionally (adjudged as best in the field of study) and nationally at conferences. What would you compensate me through student scientist union affiliation for the privilege of having represented my school?

      What kind of union should we establish for graduate lab assts to compensate further for the honor of representation of my University that spreads the UGA name to the scientific world? I never received an outright scholarship although money was scrounged up from partials to help keep a married grad student in pocket money while paying tuition using Veteran’s Benefits. I also worked part time at a local federal lab after the job was secured for me by my department head. The reward that I received was to be representative of this University for all the help and assistance that they could give to see that my academic and research work was successful. We would use the word “priceless” loosely in trying to describe what my University, through its representatives, gave to me.

      Do we not impart this honor to those on scholarship in athletic endeavors at UGA? The University presents them to the world stage in their field of choice where others see their work and adjudges them according to the strength of their endeavors. And I didn’t get the honor of wearing my schools emblem/logo on a helmet and uniform whose number delineates me from all others while I represent my University and see that work represented in the media on a daily basis. Should there be additional compensation to needy student athletes? Of course. How to make it equitable and fair is the hard part of the question.

      A worker’s union to represent me further than the scholarship honor and the privilege of representing my University in a uniform of it’s colors? I think not. If you think so, what would you do for the other fields of endeavor represented at my University? Some take out student loans as I did long ago. Poor athletes have been appreciated by alums for as long as I can remember. Handshakes of appreciation are not new in athletics. The University and it’s peoples have long ago empathized when it came to student athletes. Let’s don’t muck it up.


  3. ObscureREM

    Has there ever been a discussion about some some sort of escrow scheme, peeling off a percentage of attributable or maybe even all money coming in the door to give distribute among student athletes who actually graduate? Football program brings in 20 million/year, save 1% of that for student athletes in the class. After four years, with 800K+ in the bank, each graduate might be looking at at least a $40K check. Some other positive incentives and side effects as well, I would think.


    • Can’t do that because of title ix. If you get the football players any money then you would end up having to give it to all. Some schools like UGA could afford it but it would crush most schools. The idea of letting them make money off their likeness/commercials is not a bad one but would be hard to manage as say a local car dealership could use the athletes name etc. Coaches could have this arranged with many local businesses before the athlete ever came on campus as a way of bidding for a player. I am curious if you added up the total cost of putting on games/scholarships/housing/food/travel equipment etc. for ALL sports combined at all division 1 schools and compared it to the total revenue produced by all schools how much of a difference there would be. It might not be as much of a difference as everyone thinks.


      • Cojones

        The numbers I saw recently was 10%. Of all the money taken in, 90% was spent toward the total costs you outlined above.


  4. Always Someone Else's Fault

    We have the Little League regionals and world series on TV, a TV product which echoes the NCAA tournament 30 years ago. And yes, media types were arguing last year that ESPN and Little League should be cutting the kids and their families checks.

    The reasons we fall in love with sports have nothing to do with money, and most of the reasons we fall out of love with sports have everything to do with money.

    Side note: Great op-ed in the NY Times today by a Goldman Sachs exec, basically tendering his resignation. Why? Money had become the sole value for the company.

    Nothing wrong with money itself, IMO – it’s when the pursuit of it becomes so primary that it blocks everything else from view.

    Is there a common thread here? Probably not. Sorry for the ramble. Enjoy the tournament.


  5. paul

    “[S]tudent-athletes should be protected from exploitation by professional and commercial enterprises.” How is it that exploitation by a university and the NCAA is okay? These too are professional and commercial enterprises.


    • Cojones

      Leave the University out of it unless it’s private. Whether you devalue education in a public university is your business. What the Bd of Regents do in guiding the expenditure of taxpayer dollars is University business. What legislators do in funding The University System is the public’s business. If you wish to change this, work through your legislator.

      There are legal minds who post opinions on this blog. I would like to hear your opinions as to how compensation of collegiate athletes in a public university could be undertaken fairly.


      • paul

        I agree with the above opinions that given current reality, it probably couldn’t be. I am merely pointing out the hypocrisy of the statement. It’s pretty much the universities and the NCAA saying “hey THEY can’t do that to our pledges, only WE can do that to our pledges.” Realistically, at the vast majority of schools, the situation as it exists today is actually pretty fair and equitable. You play, we pay for school. For probably 90% (maybe more) of the athletes playing collegiate sports, that’s a good deal. At successful programs, where the athletic department is generating tens of millions of dollars per year, it is not. I believe we will see some extremely dramatic changes in the college athletics landscape sooner rather than later. Though not necessarily quickly. And certainly NOT for everyone. In my opinion the senator is spot on when he says “Eventually, they’re gonna go where the money is. It’s too tempting not to.” In my mind, that means dispensing with the NCAA all together as a step one. Hello super conferences. As far as devaluing public education, I work in public education. I have for almost fifteen years. Ten of those at universities and colleges. I do not work in athletics. Having said that, I should also point out that the opinions I express here are strictly my own. I do not claim nor pretend to represent any particular institution or public education in general. I do know this. State revenues have been shrinking for some time and are expected to continue to do so in the future. At least where I have worked, only about 30% of our revenue actually comes from the state. Financially successful athletic departments, of which there are few, are not only financially independent, they actually give money back to the school even AFTER funding all the money losing sports. Soon there will be very little, if any, incentive NOT to become totally independent entities. The NCAA knows this. In my opinion, that has more to do with them treading so lightly on U.N.C and Ohio Sate than the fact that those schools co-operated in their investigations. Once the successful athletic departments take off, they’re going to have to cut the players in. And they should. Again, strictly my personal opinion and nothing more.