Poor Mr. Emmert. After getting his ass kicked in court so many times, the message has finally sunk in that the NCAA’s amateurism stance is indefensible in this day and age. He’s finally sounded the retreat and directed the organization to send the message to schools that when it comes to fending for themselves in the marketplace, they’re on their own.
You’d think that would be enough, but the jackals won’t stop picking over the NCAA’s carcass.
On Tuesday, the National College Players Association filed unfair labor practice charges with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) against the NCAA office, the Pac-12 Conference and California schools USC and UCLA as single and joint employers of FBS football players and Division I men’s and women’s basketball players. The goal is to affirm employee status for D-I basketball players and FBS football players.
It is the latest chapter of an athlete rights movement that has generated sweeping changes to archaic NCAA policies governing athlete compensation and transfer policies. Buoyed by the Supreme Court’s ruling in the NCAA v. Alston antitrust lawsuit in June, the country’s sentiment has started to swing in the favor of players over those in charge—coaches, school administrators and conference officials.
In fact, the NCPA’s stroke comes only after new NLRB general counsel Jennifer Abruzzo encouraged such a move. In a September memo, she deemed college athletes employees under the National Labor Relations Act, a thundering message from the agency’s lead lawyer that invited athletes and athlete advocates to bring forth petitions to unionize. The NLRB is the independent agency that enforces U.S. labor law as it relates to collective bargaining.
Before you dismiss this as being a threat limited to private schools, consider that the lawyers have been at work here.
Public sentiment and the compensation that athletes can now receive from their schools have both changed significantly since Northwestern’s unionization attempt. Huma says this new complaint is also different because Abruzzo is willing to view the NCAA and conferences (not just individual schools) as potential employers. Since the NLRB doesn’t have jurisdiction over government-run entities such as public universities, the ability to consider athletes as employees of the NCAA allows for the first time the possibility that players at all public and private schools could be considered employees.
In other words, the wheels, they are turning. The suits, as usual, are in denial.
In an interview with a Portland radio station last month, Pac-12 commissioner George Kliavkoff disagreed that college athletes should be employees.
“They are students first and athletes second. That is non-negotiable for me,” he said. “We get to a place where we talk about professional athletes and it blows up the whole model. Let’s take it to the natural conclusion. Talking about professional athletes, then we have a draft. You’re telling a kid where to go to college. If they are an employee, do I get the right to fire them?
The bravado, she is false. Everything is negotiable, George. Just look at the way amateurism has been defined and redefined over the past three decades.
The question the NCAA, the conferences and the schools should be asking themselves is straightforward.
“Every day the status quo seems to be more unsustainable,” Feldman says. “Some significant change is likely to happen in the near future. There is consensus: Athletes should be given more. The question: How do we do that while protecting the foundation of college sports?”
College football’s powers that be still have it within their control to shape what is to come. The NLRB process is expected to take at least eighteen months, so there’s plenty of time to negotiate a resolution in both sides’ interests. Do I think they’ll grasp that? Given their track record, I’m not exactly holding my breath.