No university president, athletic director, or coach reacted positively when football players at Northwestern University attempt to join a union. Now we know that they got the message. Huffington Post reports that officials in the NCAA will consider loosening the rules on paying athletes. The proposal would not affect all schools, only the largest conferences. It would also only apply to high profile men’s sports, such as football and basketball. Compensation would not be direct pay, but increased cost of living stipends and insurance policies. No one knows if these measures will be accepted. I do know this: If the players at Northwestern had not been bold enough to consider forming a union, the NCAA and its member schools would have never have considered paying athletes. Workers in other industries need to take note.
As I’ve written before, I support paying college athletes in sports that produce multimillion dollar revenues for the schools and the NCAA. Today’s Chicago Sun-Times features an editorial by Salim Furth of the Heritage Foundation that also supports paying student-athletes. However, Furth suggests a different approach that would destroy college sports, a free market approach to paying players, a business model professional sports leagues no longer follow.
Furth begins his essay by affirming that a certain type of college athlete should be paid: “Division I football players are professionals. They are given room, board, and health care in exchange for their time, and served by tutors, coaches, and trainers. They are paid only if they work.” He goes on to say that under the current model “college football players earn little for their work, because the employers collude through the NCAA to cap wages.” Here I agree and disagree. I would say student athletes who receive scholarships in all Division I sports are compensated. Whether we call it pay or compensation, there is an exchange similar to employment. The second quibble I would have with Furth is that the NCAA colludes with the colleges to “cap wages.” No, the NCAA controls the student athlete’s ability to earn any income. Moreover, one of the players’ biggest complaints about the current system is that it does not cover injuries that often impact their lives long after their college careers are done.
Where Furth and I strongly disagree, however, is over the issue of how students should be compensated. Under a union model, compensation would be negotiated for groups, not individuals. Furth advocates a system where players can “reap the rewards of their own talents and labor.” Each player would bargain with a university and be paid as an individual. Professional sports leagues found two problems with this approach in the era of free agency. First, player salaries rose at a pace that threatened the survival of teams and leagues. Every sports has introduced some mechanism to control the rise of player salaries. In a related concern, every league wants competition. If the same team wins again and again, interest in a sport wanes. Large market teams often dominant. Without caps, luxury taxes, and drafts for new players, only teams that generate the most revenue would be competitive.
Furth advocates a free market approach that sounds good on paper. Every person should be able to earn a wage that is commensurate to his or her skill and contribution to an employer’s success. This model has been tested in professional sports, and it has failed. It has also been tested in professions like law, where the ABA and law schools limit the pool of new applicants through admissions policies and standards for passing the bar exam.
The free market that Furth calls for creates a society of a few winners and many losers. Under the current system in college football, many of the same teams dominant year after year. Under Furth’s system, the teams that can pay the players most would be competitive year after year. A healthy sports league – and a healthy economy – needs balance, which can only come from some kind of regulation. I’m for compensating college athletes. But it must be done in a model that works for the players, schools, and the often ignored fans. The NCAA – or an organization like it – is needed to keep the system fair and honest. We can’t have a game without rules and referees.
Pat Fitzgerald is a great football coach. He also seems to be a good man who wants to teach his players values. However, in coming out against his players joining a union, he is acting in a way that raises some hard questions that the coach does not answer. According to the players, their goal is to improve health care and academic opportunities, not salary. Coaches like Fitzgerald often make more than a million dollars a year. Fitzgerald said that unionizing is not in the players’ “best interest” and that all issues could be worked out through “communication” and “trust.”
The problem with this approach is that it leaves the individual player at the mercy of two powerful institutions: the university that grants his/her scholarship and the NCAA. It’s easy for the employer or the school to say, “Trust me. I’m doing what’s in your best interest.” According the Collegiate Athletes Players Association (CAPA), players have been punished by the NCAA for accepting food. Some universities have done little to help players who suffered injuries that will affect them for the rest of their lives. According an article in Huffington Post, Northwestern recently opened a $225 million athletic facility. According to USA Today, Coach Fitzgerald’s annual compensation is $2.2 million. College sports generates big money. College sports has a union to protect its interest: the NCAA, which generates $433 million a year in revenue just by selling rights.
In this system, shouldn’t the players be allowed to have a unified voice that lets them protect their interest? Then again, most workers in America today have no protection. Maybe the young men on Northwestern’s football team will set a good example for the country. Until working people find a way to support each other, we will all be at the mercy of a system based on “trust.”
PS: In 2011, South Park put much of this debate in a hilarious perspective, especially the definition of student-athlete.
Steve Masiello is talented, young basketball coach. He took his Manhattan team to the NCAA tourney and nearly beat powerhouse Louisville in the first round. Despite the loss, he was set to make a big career move in accepting a position as coach of South Florida University when a self-inflicted disaster struck. A background screen discovered that Masiello does have the bachelor’s degree that is listed on his resume. This fabrication will not only cost him the opportunity to move to South Florida, but his old job as well. Manhattan requires its coaches to have a degree.
Some might say that Masiello’s record speaks for itself, but many employers view a resume as a standard for honesty. If Masiello had stated that he nearly completed the degree or completed all but XX hours, he might have negotiated a different solution to his problem.
Lying on a resume is a time bomb. Any manager or co-worker could use that information against you at any time in your employment. Always cast yourself in the best light and sell your achievements, but never do so by stating something that another person can prove to be false. The price of lying on a resume can be very high.
Apparently, college football players do. Think Progress reports that the National College Players Association has filed a petition on behalf of football players from Northwestern University to be recognized as members of a union. This effort is being support by the United Steelworkers Union.
I’ve long believed that college athletes who generate millions of dollars for their universities deserve some kind of compensation, and I have no problem with their organizing. However, it says a lot about our country when this story gets so much attention while the ongoing effort of low wage workers at Walmart and similar companies is almost ignored. Public sectors unions are under fire at the Supreme Court, again, with little or no coverage.
Until working people recognize that we are all in this together, it will be easy for the super rich and their lackeys in politics and the media to play games of divide and conquer. I hope low wage workers stand with college athletes in their struggle for union right. And I hope college athletes do the same for the people who serve them at fast food restaurants and big box retail stores. On this day that has seen the passing of the great Peter Seeger, a man who loved working people, we need to all stand together and support unions.
[On Sundays, Career Calling explores intersections of life and work in “Sabbath.”]
Amateurs and Hypocrites
It’s been about a week since Ohio State’s Head Football Coach Jim Tressel resigned. An NCAA report claims that OSU players have been selling apparel and memorabilia, which is a violation of their amateur status. Apparently, Tressel knew about his players’ actions as long ago as 2002.
As we have seen in the past, a coach or player is made the symbol of scandal, the hypocrite. Fans are disappointed when their teams forfeit games or titles, but no one asks the deeper question: What about the organizations that profit most from college sports, the universities and the NCAA? In a recent column, David Zirin reports that the Big Ten will make $770 million on its annual TV deal. Football bowl games and the basketball championship generate millions, if not billions. Without the players, there would be no game. Still, in the name of amateurism, they cannot be paid.
I once believed that it was enough for players to receive tuition, room, and board. At elite private universities, such “scholarships” add up to $40,000 or more annually. As the OSU scandal shows, students need more than the basics. Unlike their classmates, athletes are prevented from working during their sports. Often, they participate in “voluntary” conditioning programs in the off season. They want nice clothes, cars, and money to go out. How can they get it? Sell a ring or jersey. That’s too much for the NCAA, which claims to protect the “honor” of sports.
Fans don’t come to games to root for administrators or university presidents or even coaches with million dollar salaries. The players draw us with their skills. They suffer the injuries, many of which will linger and worsen long after college. Meanwhile, the universities sell more than tickets. They benefit from TV rights, apparel sales, and even rights fees for video games. They also use sports to cultivate relationships with alumni donors. The players are not allowed to touch money while the university uses sports as an ATM machine.
As Zirin pointed out, the irreverent folks at South Park called out such hypocrisy by having Cartman go to a university president and discuss the topic of slavery. The video is hilarious and seems absurd – until we step back and look behind the curtain. Working without pay is slavery. As I said earlier, some will argue that scholarships are fair compensation. These people are also likely to point out that no one forces students to take this deal. Both points are true as far as they go. Young athletes love their games, and for most, the best competition, the next level after high school, is the NCAA. Elite athletes in football and basketball cannot play pro ball until they have spent a certain amount of time in college. I think the philosopher Cartman would call that time on the plantation.
I don’t know how student-athletes should be compensated, but given repeated scandals in various sports, it’s clear that the current system is broken beyond repair. If something doesn’t change, we’ll hear again about athletes “cheating” so they have money to go to a movie. They work and money is made from their labor – pay them.