April 21, 2014

FORKEN | The NCAA and Unionization

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By JAKE FORKEN

In a decision not a quite a month old, a regional director for the National Labor Relations Board ruled that Northwestern scholarship football players were allowed to unionize and collectively bargain with the university. The legitimacy of the decision — and the argument that generates the most controversy — hinges on the interpretation of football players not as student-athletes, but as employees of the academic institution. The fight is far from over as Northwestern University already announced it would appeal the decision to the NLRB national office.

Many prominent National Collegiate Athletic Association employees, such as President Mark Emmert and Pac-12 Commissioner Larry Scott, have spoken out against the unionization of Division I athletes. Scott even went so far as to write, “characterizing Northwestern University’s scholarship football players as ‘employees’ is a terrible idea that will do nothing to improve college sports and may well destroy them,” in a USA Today column.

The main concern in regards to the solvency of college athletics is that the unionization of “revenue sports,” namely football and basketball — which have traditionally supported “non-revenue sports,” such as swimming, tennis and baseball — could result in a lack of resources and the collapse of certain programs at private universities.

In his USA Today column, Scott claims that he, along with other conference commissioners across the country, supports the idea of, “increased academic support, improved student-athlete health care and enhanced athletic scholarships up to the full cost of attendance.”

Interestingly enough, The New York Times reports that the Northwestern players who brought the case to the NLRB are seeking, “better medical protections for concussions and other injuries, guaranteed scholarships that cover the full cost of attending college and the establishment of a trust fund that players can use to finish their schooling after their NCAA eligibility expires.” Seems to me as though Scott already supports what a union would potentially accomplish.

Now, one could make the argument that Scott truly champions these ideas, he just believes in a different means to the same end. However, if change has not occurred yet, why would one think major NCAA reform is on the horizon? According to CBS Sports, Scott was the highest-paid commissioner in the 2011-2012 year; “ He received $1,575,000 in base salary, a $1,376,000 bonus and additional compensation of $71,462. That’s a total of $3,022,462 for the year.”

If Scott truly believes that unionization would result in the crumbling of “non-revenue” college sports, then he should negotiate with players and other commissioners in order to provide the aforementioned reforms outside of federal courts. Heck, maybe he could even take a pay-cut.

The NCAA, an organization that recently inked a $10.8 billion March Madness television deal, along with Scott, have no financial motivation to support major reform, the only surefire method of ensuring the equitable treatment of athletes is through court obligation. If Scott truly believes that unionization would result in the crumbling of “non-revenue” college sports, then he should negotiate with players and other commissioners in order to provide the aforementioned reforms outside of federal courts. Heck, maybe he could even take a pay-cut.

In his USA Today column, Scott goes on to declare that, “The notion that [athletes] see themselves as employees rather than students is laughable.”

If the idea is so “laughable,” and Division 1 athletes are actually students rather than employees, why does the average Division 1 football player spend 43.3 hours, 3.3 hours longer than an average American employee, a week on his sport? Why do players routinely miss classes in order to appear in nationally televised broadcasts that rake in millions for the NCAA and their coaches?

According to the NCAA website, “The NCAA was formed in 1906 to protect young people from the dangerous and exploitative athletic practices of the time.” Thing is, times change. The NCAA is now a billion-dollar industry that is currently responsible for the exploitation of college athletes. Yes, most players receive scholarships. No, this is not enough when you consider the full cost of college as well as medical costs incurred due to injuries sustained in college. The NCAA wants players to be content with being the big men on campus for a couple years and then retreat silently to the backdrop, thankful for the experience.

When a handful of individuals are making billions off of college kids who can’t even find work to cover their medical expenses after college due to the streamlined academic process for elite athletes, it’s time for a change. If the NCAA really cares so much about academics for “student-athletes,” then keep the players in class and increase your scholastic requirements. The players aren’t being greedy or reaching for a piece of the billion-dollar revenue pie. All they’re seeking in exchange for the millions that coaches and commissioners stand to make off their talent and work is health coverage and a trust fund to help them stay in school after athletics. That doesn’t sound so laughable to me.

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