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Amateurs, Unions, And College Sports

Americans love college sports.  They love college sports the same way they love the NFL, Major League Baseball, English Premier League soccer, the Olympics, or any other type of sports that they can't live without.

Like those professional leagues, however, if there's one other thing that is as certain as the sun rising in the East it's that Americans hate the people who are running college sports.

There have been a multitude of criticisms lately criticizing the "guys" that are running college sports these days focusing on the definition of the term "student-athlete" and the amateur status that it implies.

But like most criticisms, it ends up being a whole lot of chest-thumping on a brand new set of "ideals" that would do more to ruin youth athletics, not to mention collegiate athletics, than any possible action from the NCAA.
The poll-tested word combinations for the unionizing of collegiate athletes is "seat at the table" and "voice".

You find that combination of words in a multitude of different articles concerning union representatives, most notable Northwestern QB Kain Colter's effort to form a labor union for college athletes, called CAPA.
[NCPA president] Ramogi Huma told “Outside The Lines” that the move to unionize players at Northwestern started with QB Kain Colter, who reached out to him last spring and asked for help in giving athletes representation in their effort to improve the conditions under which they play NCAA sports. Colter became a leading voice in regular NCPA-organized conference calls among players from around the country. 
For years, the NCAA has had the Division I Student-Athlete Advisory Committee. For years, it has generally been understood that the NCAA attempts to control the committee's message. Just getting an interview with committee members through the years has often required reporters to go through the NCAA's public relations office. 
This week, Melissa Minton -- a member of the committee and a former Louisiana-Lafayette soccer player -- spoke out about the NCAA's attempts to manage the group's messages.
"They want us to have a voice, but they put a muzzle on us," Minton told The Chronicle of Higher Education's Brad Wolverton. 
This is just the first step, and it comes with a long road ahead and no guarantee of success. 
Yet the act is significant, and the latest in a rush of challenges – both legal and political – to the basic concept of amateurism that is the bedrock of the NCAA. Before anyone brushes off the possibility of a college athlete's union as farcical and farfetched, there was a time when professional sports owners said the same thing about the likelihood of organized labor in their leagues. 
"The No. 1 thing that I want to accomplish is to finally give athletes a true voice," Colter told Yahoo Sports. "They need to finally have a seat at the table when rules and regulations are determined. They need an entity in place that can negotiate on the players' behalf and have their best interests in mind."
You also may remember that, reportedly, Colter organized a "protest" at a Northwestern game by encouraging some of his teammates, and other national players wear "All Players United" on their wrist tape during a game last September.

There's even a documentary on Netflix - yes, Virginia, somebody bankrolled it, it wasn't exactly a Blair Witch-project type of student film - trying to convince people that a union is a good idea as well.

In fact, there is something slick and disconcerting about the speed in which several national unions - including the United Steelworkers union, and the NCPA - have rushed into the fray, backed by a slew of glowing reports and op-ed pieces from writers who should have much better B.S. detectors.  

Central to the effort to college player unionization is the redefinition of the term "student-athlete".

As the argument goes, if a collegiate athlete is defined as a "student-athlete", he becomes a type of indentured servant to the college, forced to perform for the school.  

But if he were defined as an "employee", the thought is, with the collective bargaining power of a union, he (or she) would be able to have more of a say in the running of the sport, or, say, negotiate for better working conditions, or more safety measures.

I have a big problem with this.

First, let's say, for the sake of argument, a judge rules that a college athlete is really an employee of a university.

But what is different about a high school athlete?

You can make the exact same arguments that are currently attempting to be made for collegiate athletes - that it's really the high school football players that are bringing people from town to watch the team play under the Friday Night Lights.  

All the same issues in regards to recruiting and player safety also apply to high school athletes, and if seventeen year old kids need a "seat at the table", shouldn't sixteen year old kids?

There's also that definition of "employee", the formal definition which is "a person employed for wages or salary".

If a judge calls college athletes "employees", I can't see how "wages" don't follow shortly thereafter.

And then it gets even trickier - calling a star football player an "employee" like QB Johnny Manziel might make some sense, but what about, say, the starting long-snapper?  Do they get paid, too?  Do they get paid the same?

And then it gets even trickier still - if you pay football players, you need to pay women's tennis players, too - because that would be unfair to only pay one athlete, but not another.  Football ostensibly makes "revenue" for a school, but women's tennis does not.  Do you pay for women's tennis players, or do you just fold up the sport?

This is all, of course, assuming that athletic programs are all money-making enterprises in the sense that they make more money than they spend.  Much more than half of all the athletic programs at the Division I level do not, and when you go down to Division II or III the numbers are even worse.

It's not a reach - at least to me - to think that considering athletes as "employees" would have terrible effects on sports at all levels.  By necessity, in my opinion, many non-revenue sports would fold.  High schools, in my opinion would be affected, and might need to pay its star players in "revenue" sports, too.


Second, is there really, truly evidence that there are workplace abuses of student-athletes on a systemic level in terms of any sport?

You might remember the claims of Grambling student-athletes this September of their impoverished athletic department, and their unsafe working environment, something I wrote about.
During the protest, which included two days of practice boycotts and the removal of interim coach George Ragsdale, Grambling players complained of substandard facilities, unhealthy conditions and long bus rides. But the catalyst, according to several players, was a feeling they had been neglected and disrespected after the school fired Doug Williams last month. 
Seems, like a tailor-made situation for a union to jump in, right?  You'd be wrong.
Given the reported program negligence and sorry treatment of its players, the Grambling administration is justifiably on the griddle. (The entire athletic department is a wreck, with a winless football team and a men's basketball team that went 0-28 last year.) If any situation screams for the intervention of the National College Players Association and its All Players United movement, it's the one at Grambling. 
But NCPA head Ramogi Huma told The Dash that he's in a more reactive than proactive stance. 
"If they reached out to us, we would help out however we could," Huma said. "We want to have a positive impact." 
Huma said he has heard from none of the Grambling players. Perhaps he should make the first call and offer his services. There may not be as much publicity at the FCS level, but if the point is championing players' rights and player safety, this is a prime situation to get involved.

This should make clear the abject hypocrisy of the NCPA: when it comes to helping unionize the workers for an athletic program that spent $66 million last season alone, the NCPA is full steam ahead, but when it comes to a real, documented case of unsafe working conditions, the NCPA is "waiting for the first phone call".

But even with that abject hypocrisy, if there is evidence that schools like Northwestern, Notre Dame, or Harvard are shortchanging the health and welfare of its students in order to have a great athletics program, perhaps collective bargaining is a good idea anyway.

But it's simply false.

Can anyone say with a straight face that any of the "Big 5" schools have substandard facilities for their athletes in terms of physical therapy or academic support?  (In case you were wondering, here's some of the "facilities" available for some student-athletes.)

There are plenty of other ways to criticize the "Big 5" schools and the power structure, but you can't say that they don't give players an opportunity to become professionals in sports and in other academic fields.

How would collective bargaining help here?

What would they suggest?  More money spent on academic support?  More physical therapy?  Virginia, this spending is happening already.  The biggest schools are already swimming in money, and already trying to protect their "investments" in players.  They're spending money to keep their kids healthy and to keep them passing classes.  Having a union will give them no extra incentive to take care of their athletes - they already have a giant incentive to do so.  Some say that the schools do so at the detriment to regular students.

Is there any evidence that the "Big 5", or the NCAA, has, say, tried to downplay any safety issues with its student-athletes, especially in terms of football?

And if, like me, you think that the answers to all these questions are "No", then how would having a union help?


Football, and any NCAA sport for that matter, should feature ideal, level playing field competition and sports that are as safe as possible.  But the way to bring that about isn't necessarily a union, and definitely not in the case of collegiate athletics.

It's a potentially destabilizing move with dubious benefits to combat a nonexistent problem.

Like everyone, I want athletes to have a say in regards to safety and even in the way things are run at their respective universities.  But to me, flirting with a college players union isn't the answer.


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