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A Union Would Be Good For College Football Players, But Bad For Most Everyone Else

gfx-honest-opinionThe NCAA is the bad guy.  Always has been.  Always will be.  Coaches and administrators are annoyed by its clunky rulebook.  Fans hate it because it tries to prevent cheating and that, in turn, hurts their team’s chances of winning.  Also, it’s viewed as the ultimate evil when it comes to keeping those poor souls known as college athletes in line.

For that reason, many have cheered the Ed O’Bannon lawsuit that wants the NCAA to have to pay a portion of licensing fees to athletes themselves.  Many will likely hip-hip-hooray yesterday’s big news that college athletes are attempting to form a labor union — it would be called the College Athletes Players Association — which would result in them being recognized as employees.

ESPN’s “Outside The Lines” reported on Tuesday that Ramogi Huma — the president of CAPA — filed a petition on behalf of many Northwestern football players that would result in them seen as “employees” of the university.

The NCAA, quite naturally, responded by saying that the move “undermines the purpose of college: an education.”  NCAA chief legal officer Donald Remy added: “Student-athletes are not employees, and their participation in college sports is voluntary.  We stand for all student-athletes, not just those the unions want to professionalize… Student-athletes are not employees within any definition of the National Labor Relations Act or the Fair Labor Standards Act.  We are confident the National Labor Relations Board will find in our favor, as there is no right to organize student-athletes.”

Those pushing for unionization are well motivated, too.  “(The NCAA) fought us tooth and nail on the most basic of protections,” said Huma.  “It didn’t matter how much money was coming in.”  Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter reportedly requested civil conversations with the NCAA over issues such as medical care and player stipends.  When the NCAA declined to chat, Colter got with Huma and now college players are taking matters to the court system.

Already SEC players are backing the movement (including several players from Georgia’s football team).  Many fans will likely back the union movement with gusto simply because it’s an “anti-NCAA” thing.  And after all, the players aren’t specifically asking for money.  Not yet anyway.

The goals of what’s now being called the National College Players Association — it will become CAPA if/when it wins in court — include: guaranteed coverage for sports-related injuries for current and former players, improved graduation rates via an educational trust set up to help former players get their degrees, increased athletic scholarships and the right for players to receive money from commercial sponsorships, etc.

Well that doesn’t sound too bad.  But a quick check of the group’s website makes it pretty clear that money is a key focus.  Here’s the top story posted on the NCPA’s homepage today:  “The $6 Billion Heist: Robbing College Athletes Under the Guise of Amateurism.”

Yeah, but this isn’t about money.  It’s about an educational trust fund.  Right.

Not to be harsh, but student-athletes choose to play football, basketball or any other sport.  They are not drafted.  They are not coerced.  If they feel that an opportunity to get an education is not worth their time and effort then they can get a job like everyone else in America.  Heartless?  No, realistic.  And without a college degree, finding a good job won’t be easy.

Colleges make big money off of their football teams.  They make some money off of their men’s basketball teams.  They make little or no money from any of the other athletic squads on their campuses.  The biggest conferences — ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12, and SEC — are currently pushing the NCAA to allow their member institutions to kick a little cash back to their football players.

If those leagues are allowed by the NCAA to start giving full-cost-of-tuition scholarships or $2,000 stipends to football players, those leagues/schools will soon face cries from every group of athletes on their campuses claiming that they put in just as many hours and deserve just as much cash.  Title IX will be brought up in the blink of an eye.

Money is going to change college football as we know it.  First, the biggest conferences will create their own division within the NCAA.  (We’ve been stating for years that it’ll be a new division in the NCAA and not a breakaway from the NCAA.)  Players will get a taste of some money and then they will quickly demand more.  If they have a union, that union will demand more.  The union will also do what other sports unions do — fight like hell with the evil employer at every front.

A player gets suspended over a failed drug test?  The union will appeal.  A player is cut from a team for misbehaving off the field?  The union will protest.  A player is told he’s healthy enough to play?  His union rep will tell him to sit until someone can provide a second opinion.

Unions aren’t bad things.  Without unions we’d all be living in a Dickensian nightmare.  But unions do change things.  And if you’re a sports fan — reading this site suggests you are — you’d better prepare yourself for the changes that the unionization of athletes could bring.

College football has had the same basic structure for a century.  The coach is the main man on campus and he makes the rules.  Players get an education.  They also receive athletic training that helps the most talented among them begin professional careers.  Simple.  Straight-forward.

Now toss in money and a union and that whole system will change.  It’ll change for the better for the players financially.  But it likely won’t change for the better for anyone else.

Which means you better think twice before cheering on this movement simply because it makes life miserable for the NCAA.  In the end it could make life miserable for college football fans, too.

 


7 comments
the_voice
the_voice

Lost in the discussion of the "unfairness of college athletic programs profiting on the back of the poor, abused athletes" is the irrefutable fact that the athletes economic value before being recruited to campus is near zero. Their value increases as they are recruited to and play for "big time jock university". Also lost is that the great majority of "big time jock university" players never develop an economic value that is equivalent to their college scholarship. For every Johnny Manziel there are dozens of Joe Averages who have full rides at their schools due, in great part, to a few of their teammates, the media, and the university and conference they have chosen to join.

DaveinExile
DaveinExile

Nice write-up. The only thing I would question here would be the notion that a new division will happen within the NCAA rather than apart. The NCAA is already paralyzed by the tension between internal constituencies. Up until recently I would have agreed that the have-nots would eventually come around and give the haves more autonomy. However, if players unionize, then that could put a lot of additional pressure on the have/have-not divide. A lot of it depends on who the union would be bargaining with, and I honestly don't know the answer to that question. Schools? Conferences? NCAA? All of the above? What a mess that would be.

Mark1984
Mark1984

"Now toss in money and a union and that whole system will change.  It’ll change for the better for the players financially.  But it likely won’t change for the better for anyone else."


Shouldn't it change for the better for the players first and foremost?  If the NCAA can get away with collusion, why is it such a bad thing when the players try the same thing?

Roggespierre
Roggespierre

@the_voice  Undoubtedly true, but does it matter?  Every prospective employee at any company creates zero value for the enterprise until he/she works on that enterprise's behalf.  The football team at every Big 5 Conference university creates more than the economic value of its scholarships due to television money.


The NCAA's claim that athletic participation is voluntary also has the appearance of a moot point.  That they play voluntarily does not make the players something less than employees.


This issue has been building since the Oklahoma Supreme Court win over the NCAA.  At that time, the notion that college football and men's basketball were not businesses seemed to retain some merit.  And then the money started rolling in, accelerating each year and increasing geometrically in the broadband/digital age.  Technology and its associated new economics changed the reality of college football and men's basketball.  It makes sense that the old structures and regulations are no longer sufficient.


Does that mean players should be unionized?  Perhaps.  But I think it's fair to say they have a much stronger argument for unionization today than they did 30 years ago.

the_voice
the_voice

@Roggespierre @the_voice  Think about it this way. How much economic value did Jerry Rice have while at Mississippi Valley State? Not much. If he had the same collegiate career at Alabama or Texas, would that economic value have been higher? Of course so. But Rice wouldn't have had any impact on that added value. What made the difference? The school's and conference's brand and marketing acumen. Now do it in reverse. Think about a highly touted player your favorite team recruited who never developed. His economic value early on in his college career wais because your school (and others) thought he may be a stud, not because he was one. Again, the school's and conference's brand and marketing skills are the ones adding the value. There isn't one player in any of the big 5 conferences that makes a statistical difference in the economic value of major college athletics. If 20% of the SEC football players left to play for teams in the Mountain West, it wouldn't change the college sports landscape monetarily for quite a number of years.

Football players can legitimately argue that the only rational path to the NFL runs through college football. What may change over time is how players are compensated for their work. Why should a long snapper or a backup tight end at Texas A&M get the same compensation as Johnny Football? The JFs may get more in the future, but, ultimately, the Joe Averages make less. So more of the potential union members will end up suffering as the stars get more compensation while waiting to make even more in the NFL. For that you form a union?

Basketball players have less standing. There is the D League and pro ball overseas as options instead of going to college. That makes it hard to argue that they are required to go to college to advance in their profession. Duke, Kansas, Kentucky and the like are highly economic brand names with or without the one and done players. (That may well be true for the football powerhouses as well. How much did Vince Young help the Texas Longhorn brand on a long term basis? Johnny Rogers at Nebraska, etc.)

the_voice
the_voice

@Roggespierre @the_voice  Couldn't agree more with the point about many college football players not really being students. I wish there was a different path to the NFL for those that are "non-student athletes". Their greed, sense of entitlement, and chutzpah are the source of the problem..

Roggespierre
Roggespierre

@the_voice @Roggespierre  An excellent, excellent point.  It's been awhile since I've read Oklahoma Board of Regents v. NCAA, but I seem to recall that Justice Stevens used the example of Minor League Baseball to present a similar argument in the Majority Opinion.  I do not disagree with him or with you.


Every time I turn this thing over in my mind, I get a sufficient number of scenarios and permutations to drive myself crazy.  Of course the star QB is worth more than the long snapper.  However, football teams can't punt or kick field goals in televised football games without a long snapper... and football games on television obviously have substantial economic value... so... you see where I'm going.


There will always be underpaid and overpaid players in professional sports.  Were Tre Mason and Jameis Winston worth more than the value of their scholarships this season?  Of course.  I don't think anybody would argue with that.  Likewise, I doubt that anybody would argue that Auburn's scout team RB was probably overpaid, assuming of course that he was a scholarship player.  I guess that's why I see the relatively level of pay as a completely separate issue.


In the big picture, should players be paid at all aside from the scholarship?  I see good arguments both ways, but I think the argument against paying players has lost a lot of credibility in the 30 years since the Oklahoma decision.  One issue that I would like to see explored further is the fact that so many football players would not otherwise be admitted to the universities that recruited them.  Thus, it seems to me that they are by definition NOT student-athletes, but rather they are, well, professionals that were acquired in order to generate revenue.  That's a simplistic argument, to be sure, but I don't think it's unsound.

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