Search Box

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Questions about the college players' union

A recent article pointed out that the impetus behind the new college players' union is coming from the United Steelworkers Union, which funded the case. And the NLRB -- the same organization which tried to prevent Boeing from opening up a new plant in South Carolina -- passed judgment. Evidently the unions see a chance to collect more dues.

The rationale is that colleges make millions off their football programs, both in TV revenue and alumni donations, but the athletes themselves get no compensation beyond their scholarships.

One wonders exactly how this will work. Let's say these student/athletes end up being paid a couple hundred thousand a year: how much resentment would this engender among the other students? Would they still root for their college team?

Unionization certainly puts into clear relief that certain "students" are attending college mostly to play ball. That big time college football and basketball players are not serious students is hardly a secret, but how much more scrutiny will their farcical academic credentials withstand before serious questions start being asked about whether this situation should be allowed to continue?

The vast majority of colleges will doubtless harrumph and insist they are serious educational institutions, not factories for future pro athletes. (Does any academic ever pass up a chance to sniff at a lesser college?)

The essential power of a union lies in its ability to call a strike. How exactly would that work for a college football team? They would seem to lack leverage, since their only alternative is the pros, which most of them aren't good enough for. What kind of bargaining position does that give these unions?

There are plenty of students who played high school ball but weren't good enough to make their college teams who'd jump at the chance to take the place of the striking players. Would these "scabs" be ostracized by the first string players? Would they have to cross picket lines to attend practice?

What if one of these second string teams ended up playing in a big game? It would probably end up getting more publicity -- and possibly even paying fans -- than a normal game. It's not hard to figure out whom the average American fan would be rooting for in that situation. That fan might be disappointed in the lack of a Hollywood ending to the game; nonetheless, he would still be interested enough to watch.

So will we ever see a situation in which the Chicago Bears and University of Oklahoma get into a bidding war for the services of a star running back? Doubtful.

Part of the rationale behind the NLRB's decision was that the football players devote a lot of time to their sport as well as having to take courses. But if having to take courses as well as train for a sport is a "job," then why don't the rest of the student/athletes unionize? Because the less publicized sports don't make money for their colleges.

But that still begs the question of why their campus existence is any less of a job. Don't swimmers, rowers, and cross country runners work even harder at their "jobs" than do football players? Especially when you take into account the GPA's and graduation rates of those teams vs. the football and basketball teams?

Here's another way to look at it. Maybe the colleges where the athletes have honed their skills and gotten national exposure should demand a cut, say 15%, of the athletes' future earnings from their sport. After all, they've helped the players develop as athletes, all while giving them a free education and room ad board to boot. 

These colleges are effectively coach, agent, and benefactor all at once. 

So, how about it? Shouldn't they get a cut of those fat NFL salaries?

Sounds like a case the NLRB might be sympathetic towards. As long as the colleges are willing to pay union dues.


Anonymous said...

you make some good points.

college football functions similar to the minor league baseball clubs, so it would be interesting if the NFL started to pay the college coaches salaries and the college players salaries were supplemented from the NFL and the NCAA TV revenue. Each NFL team could take an "ownership" stake in 2 or 3 college programs, then the players would get tied to an NFL team when they chose their college, just as baseball players in the minor leagues.

But I do see why the college football and Basketball players want some of the income the NCAA gets from their efforts. The Universities and NCAA make millions of dollars from these students efforts, and most of the students get little in return. The NCAA has so many rules governing the players, they should add rules to govern the coaches, seems unfair they can pack up and leave a program without notice, while the players they recruited are stuck playing for another coach.

I do think the College football players should get paid a monthly stipend while they are at school. The universities are earning plenty of money from these athletes.

I was a student athlete for 2 years in college, on the crew team. It is very difficult to play division 1A and get good grades. But with football the players often graduate with bad knees and significant bodily injuries which last a lifetime.

John Craig said...

Thank you, you make some good points too. I hadn't thought of likening the college system to minor league baseball, but it's an apt analogy.

Do the college football players deserve some of the television revenue? By that line of logic, NBC, which makes millions off of its Olympic coverage, ought to share that money with the runners and swimmers and gymnasts. (Sorry, the rowers don't bring in the same ratings.) After all, they're the ones the audience tunes in to see, and it's because of them that NBC makes so much money. So does NBC owe them money?

A more stretched analogy: news shows make money off people who've had tragedies happen in their lives; do they owe those people money? They also make money off of their coverage of politicians; are they owed money as well? I don't think so.

I certainly wouldn't mind the NCAA having rules governing the coaches the same way they do the players; that does seem more fair.

i agree that football is a dangerous sport which can easily result in lifelong injuries; I'd even say that over 50% of the ex-fotball players I've known are nursing something gimpy 20 years after their careers ended. (We're humans, not rams.) But is that the responsibility of the college? I"m not so sure.

Anonymous said...

Unlike college football players, olympic athletes can make millions in endorsements. College football players would be kicked out of football for selling their game jerseys, while olympic swimmers sign contracts to sell goggles and swimsuits.

It may not be the responsibility of the college to pay their athletes, but they should give athletes the freedom to at least earn money via endorsements or signing autographs.

The NCAA rules prohibit them from taking money from boosters. Why ? They forbid them from transferring to another school to play football (if they transfer to another school they must sit out a year and may lose a year of playing time. Even the International olympic committee allows nations to pay their athletes. Many nations give their athletes stipends and pay for their coaches, food, rent etc... and give them a bonus for winning a medal.

a rower on my college team competed in the 1996 olympics. while training for the olympics they raised private funds to help pay the costs of training and living expenses. Yet college athletes would be banned from accepting such funds, and the university would be sanctioned if they allowed a private group to help student athletes pay their living expenses.

at minimum the NCAA should allow athletes to accept gifts, money, endorsements etc...Instead of imposing sanctions on teams if an athlete accepts gifts.

John Craig said...

Anon --
I completely agree with you that college athletes ought to be allowed to earn whatever money they can on the side. They should be allowed to accept gifts and endorsement money.

But keep in mind that it's only the rare -- very rare -- Olympic athlete who can make millions in endorsements. In this country, there have been only two: Phelps and Lochte. The rest of the Olympic team can scrape together a living from swimsuit companies and national stipends, but it probably doesn't add up to much more than the value of a scholarship at a top college. For every Usain Bolt, there are hundreds of lower level Olympic runners who barely scrape by. You rowed, you know how that is.

Anonymous said...

As Olympic endorsents go, does anyone think General Mills is still glaad they put Bruce Jenner pm the Wheaties box?

John Craig said...

Anon --
Ha! You're right, I don't think they were anticipating the "laryngeal shave" Bruce who emerged. (He didn't like his prominent Adam's apple, so had it shaved down.)