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.
According to a recent poll, most Americans are opposed to paying college athletes. In a similar spirit many working people are opposed to unions because they have to pay dues, or they are conservatives who oppose unions because that's what conservatives do. In both of these examples, workers are working against themselves. If paying college athletes is wrong, why is it correct to pay their coaches million dollar contracts? If unions aren't a good thing, why do large businesses join together in the national chamber of commerce and professionals like lawyers and doctors unite in the ABA and the AMA. Too many American workers have bought the sound bytes pushed out by those who want to exploit them. Nothing will change until working people start to understand the interests that they share.
[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.