The NCAA’s Union Problem



Add another major headache to the NCAA’s list.

This past Wednesday, Ramogi Huma filed a petition with the National Labor Relations Board on behalf of a delegation of football players from Northwestern University, asking that they be recognized as a formalized union.

This may not be as exciting as watching Johnny Manziel scramble around the TV screen or the latest in what is sure to be a litany of buzzer beaters when March Madness rolls around, but this is by no means a trivial matter for the NCAA. Should this union be approved, they will finally have to collectively bargain with players, just as professional sports leagues like the NFL and NBA do with their athletes.

If approved as a union, a group called the College Athletes Players Association (CAPA) will represent the Northwestern football players. And for now at least, it sounds as though their demands will be centered around better medical safety for players, as well as additional benefits in the event of an injury suffered on the field of play. (As of now, colleges can pull scholarships from players if they are no longer able to compete because of injury.) There is no excuse for the lack of protections provided to these athletes in the event that they are injured while competing on behalf of their universities. There is not a single university who could expose their employees to the physical danger (both in the short-term and long-term) that college football players are presently without facing multiple lawsuits. And yet, college athletes are not entitled to a dime if they sustain injuries (specifically cognitive impairments) that manifest themselves later on in life.

In fairness, the NCAA does have a Catastrophic Injury Insurance Program (CIIP) that provides for medical expenses in the event that an athlete is, as the name implies, catastrophically injured on the field. However, before we go ahead and pat the NCAA on the back, let us also remember that this is the same organization that made up the term “student-athlete” out of thin air to avoid having to pay workmen’s compensation. Furthermore, the CIIP is very strict about only providing protections for athletes whose injuries are visible at the moment of impact. A cynical person might suggest that the NCAA does this, in part, to avoid terrible press and public outcry should a player be paralyzed on the field, as was the case with Rutgers defensive tackle Eric LeGrand back in 2010. With the NCAA, it is oftentimes difficult to stand opposed and take on the role of a non-cynic.

It’s a little surprising then that CAPA has made it clear that men’s college basketball players will also be eligible to join CAPA, mainly because the devastating long-term injuries incurred by basketball players do not measure up to their football-playing counterparts. A recent study (funded by the NFL) suggests that high school football players are four times as likely to suffer concussions than male high school basketball players. By allowing men’s basketball players admission to this union, CAPA is effectively showing its hand, demonstrating that they already are eyeing the enormous pot of money – $771 million, in fact – generated each year by March Madness on the men’s side.

Not surprisingly, the NCAA wasted no time in launching its latest spin campaign. NCAA Chief Legal Officer Donald Remy wrote, “Student-athletes are not employees, and their participation in college sports is voluntary.” This is indeed true, but fails to capture the implicit trade that college athletes make. For while athletes can choose to no longer participate in their respective sport, with such a decision comes another consequence: the loss of their scholarship.

Is it rational to suggest that scholarship athletes should be able to quit playing their respective sport and still continue to receive an education at their university’s expense? Of course not. Those that take such a position would essentially be saying that an employee should be able to decide that they no longer want to perform the functions of their employment and still be entitled to a paycheck courtesy of their employer. Nobody would argue that. But again, to draw such a comparison, one must first admit that there is little to no difference between employees and scholarship college athletes.

Remy then went on to say, “We (the NCAA) stand for all student-athletes, not just those the unions want to professionalize.” First off, Remy’s choice of the word “unions” here is more than a bit surprising, as the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) has yet to determine if the Northwestern football players are to be considered a union. True, Remy could have been referring to the National College Players Association (NCPA) or the United Steelworkers, which will provide technical support should the Northwestern players be certified by the NLRB, but to be so generous with the term seems careless. More importantly and less semantically, Remy’s statement blends in well with the treatment that men’s college football and basketball players receive overall from the NCAA.

The NCAA would be content to continue living in the bizzaro separate but equal world of its own creation, whereby it’s perfectly acceptable to admit that there are only two major revenue generating sports, but somehow beyond the pale to suggest that athletes from these two sports be treated any differently than athletes participating in other sports. There is no shortage of voices like Remy’s that cry out, “Without all the revenue from football or men’s college basketball, all other college sports will fall by the wayside.” And yet, it seems like a stretch to say that any ethics professor on these Division I campuses would suggest that many people benefiting off the undercompensated labor of a select view is an inherently good thing. That’s hypocrisy, folks.

Now, should the Northwestern players be successful in being recognized as a union, what are the long-term implications?

There are some proponents – most notably, ESPN’s college basketball analyst Jay Bilas – of completely blowing things up and operating major college sports as a free market enterprise, whereby athletes can choose which school is best for them based on what they are offered, be it financial benefits or otherwise. This is not without merit, but would likely, in a short amount of time, destroy not just ancillary college sports, but also the popularity of men’s college football and basketball as well. The major college football programs especially – think Texas, Alabama, Notre Dame, and Michigan – would be able to obtain the best players simply because their programs generate the most money. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but the recent spike in the NFL’s popularity (and by extension, its revenue) over the past 25 years demonstrates that a completely free market might not be the most beneficial system for players.

It is hard to take a stance against the position that the salary cap – which, in and of itself, is a direct violation of America’s long-held free market principles and just about every antitrust law outside the context of collective bargaining – is directly responsible for the monumental growth of the NFL over the past 25 years. What was once mainly a competition between the Steelers, Dolphins, 49ers, Cowboys, and Raiders in the ‘70s and ‘80s has become a yearly shuffle (with the exception of the Patriots, who have somehow competed in the AFC Championship eight out of the past 13 years) for which team hoists the Lombardi trophy each year. And what was once a multi-million dollar industry has now become a $9 billion enterprise. It is impossible to escape the role that parity – the strongest tenant of which is the salary cap – has played in this. So a very strong argument could be made that restrictions on the amount that college basketball and football players can make would actually help them make more money in the long run, as backwards as it sounds.

But arguments and decisions on matters such as these are still years away. For now, all we know is that the latest crack in the NCAA’s armor came on Wednesday. And soon – maybe not tomorrow, or this year, or the one after, but soon – the levies will break. And the NCAA, as we now know it, will be longer.

About Ryan Hallagan

Ryan Hallagan recently graduated from the University of San Diego with a B.A. in Psychology and English and plans to parlay that education into writing about his greatest passion: the big business that is professional sports. He also enjoys writing short stories, obsessively listens to bands like The Gaslight Anthem and actively wishes that a time-traveling DeLorean really did exist, so that he could go back to 1975, far away from all of the terrible music he hears on the radio today. Follow him on Twitter @rallyforhally
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