by Kent Sterling
The debate is simple. College athletes should either be paid to their value, or they should be happy with the educational opportunity they already receive as a scholarship athlete. The tough part of deciding which side you support is understanding the consequences of changing the financial structure of college athletics.
Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter announced yesterday that he and his teammates have filed the necessary paperwork to unionize the football team. The Wildcats are fighting for the right to sit at a table as the policies governing their post-career health coverage, ability to continue their education beyond the expiration of their athletic eligibility, and other issues are discussed.
The NCAA involves student-athletes in discussions, but they have no legal standing to collective bargaining as they are not considered employees. Colter wants to change that.
Walter Byers, the inventor of collegiate athletics as it exists today referred to it in his memoir “a neo-plantation mentality.” It’s unfair that the young men and women who do the work have no place at the table where the rules governing their lives as athletes are discussed.
The NCAA, as you might guess, would prefer that the Northwestern football team remain an ad hoc group of gifted athletes without the benefits of belonging to a union would confer.
NCAA chief legal officer Donald Remy simply stated the NCAA’s position, ‘‘Student-athletes are not employees, and their participation in college sports is voluntary.”
So what happens if the Wildcats are declared employees and granted the right to unionize?
To say it will be a mess is an insult to messes. Players might then be taxed on part or all of the cost of their scholarships. Schools could lose their non-profit status, which would mean among many other things including donations to schools no longer being tax deductible. That eliminates a significant incentive for those who write big checks, and would cause a massive financial hardship for the schools.
I could list the ways this thing could all spin wildly out of control if the National Labor Relations Board rules in favor of Northwestern, but none would change the question that you need to answer in your own mind – does the need to treat college athletes who are part of a multi-billion dollar machine as employees outweigh the potential changes it will cause to the collegiate athletic landscape as we know it?
Yesterday, on ESPN’s “Around the Horn, host Tony Reali wrapped up the lively debate over paying players by saying that they had spent 11 years and three months arguing about paying players, and are no closer to an answer. This morning, I read an article published in a 1986 edition of Sports Illustrated, and the question was discussed there in the same way it is today.
Hilariously, the piece refers to the TV deal for March Madness as growing “from a $180,000 afterthought in 1966 to the $32 million-a-year bonanza of today.” The most recent deal signed in 2010 is worth roughly $742,000,000 during each of its 14 years.
The more things change, the more they stay the same.
That explosive growth in the wealth of the NCAA and its member institutions is part of the justification for those who want to fundamentally change the game for the people dubbed student-athletes by Byers in 1953 to help reaffirm the notion that athletes who happen to be students too are not employees. A lot of people are making a lot of money, but none of it funnels down to the participants themselves.
So, the decision becomes, should college football and men’s basketball players – responsible for so much revenue – be compensated to their value like everyone else in America, or should the current business model be maintained? The consequences of either path appears dire.
Colter sees what he believes is a wrong and is trying to right it, and to Northwestern University’s credit, they support his effort if not the notion of “employee-athletes.” He’s using the excellent education he received as compensation for sharing his athletic gifts quite well.
The game is changing, and before you make the call yourself as to whether doing the right thing is worth the consequences, you should read “Saturday Millionaires” by Kristi Dosh (who will be a guest at 9a this Saturday on ‘Ahead of the Curve; 1070 the Fan, Indianapolis). It lays out the realities of college athletic finance better than anything I’ve read, and if you feel sure what the right answer to these apparently simple question is, you will be much less sure after reading Dosh’s breakdown.
As for me, the cost of doing the right thing never negates the need to do it, and paying athletes in proportion to their value is the right thing whatever mayhem it causes. That chaos might cause the death of college sports as we know it, but the right thing is the right thing.