Unionize College Athletes Now!

Labor Organizing

 New Orleans               I’m not sure if we are moving towards the end of the college bowl cycle or in the middle?  The big bowl games, like the Sugar, Rose, Cotton, and Orange are now BCS bowls, and the biggest bowl is the Championship right around the corner in the Louisiana Superdome.   But, there are scores of bowls, filling up hours and hours of sports programming, and if the choice is watching some folks root around an old codger’s barn in Iowa for junk or some simpy-whimpy so-called comedy, then, hey, sign me up for the big game from Missoula and I’ll watch the Grizzlies play San Marcos!  Heck, I’ll even watch soccer.

            And, judging by the billions being paid by ESPN and others to broadcast live sports as “product,” these games are passing for entertainment, and the players are either professionals or if they are not, they are being pimped out for pay by their educational institutions without hardly more than a thank you, and often not much of an education.    In recent weeks I have read several excellent articles making the case that college athletes, especially men’s football and basketball, should be paid, first in The Atlantic  by Taylor Branch, the noted prize winning biographer of Martin Luther King, and, more recently by Joe Nocera in the New York Times.   Two other articles also moved me on this question.  One was in the New Yorker and was looking at the growing “professionalism” of big time high school (yes, high school!!!) football, and the other was a brief piece in the Wall Street Journal making the case for more realistically pruning down the ranks of the top football NCAA division to get rid of huge number of schools that don’t have a chance and in fact are subsidizing the sport and losing millions in many institutions, that should know better.  Don’t they have business departments there either?

The NCAA itself walked into the mess finally by prosing to pay athletes $2000 per year.  They were forced to retreat by too many college athletic employers making the standard claim of all employers that they couldn’t afford to pay the workers who were bringing in the bucks.  Now, Nocera makes the excellent point that I had overlooked, that this coming season some players will be paid (if you call $2K a wage?), and others will not be, depending on when some athletes signed school “intent” letters.  This creates a totally ridiculous situation!

The numbers are all ridiculous.  The NCAA makes more than $770 M per year from TV rights to the “March Madness” playoffs to the basketball championship.  The combined revenue of men’s college football and basketball is estimate at $6 billion per year.  Big-time universities recognize that sports are huge moneymakers for them, which is why they pay the coaches sometimes millions per year.  In a stunning graphic the Times picture the highest paid 15 college coaches who were making a combined $53+ million per year.  All of this is built on the backs of “student athletes” who are paid nothing!

Oh yeah, the students get scholarships, though in many cases the value of the scholarships don’t pay all of the freight, as most parents of college age children know.  The fact that the scholarships exist within this revenue and exploitation model means that the athletes might be paid less.  It does not mean they should work – and get hurt – for free. 

Many of the proposals, particularly Nocera’s, are intriguing involving lifetime health insurance (everyone needs that!), bidding, salary caps per school, and so forth.  Before getting too deeply involved in any of the intricacies of various schemes, the starting point that is the huge power of the NCAA itself and the legal anti-trust implications of its operations with the institutions and of course the players, and, just like other big time professional sports programs, as we have discussed previously, the only way the NCAA can get around this problem is by negotiating directly and fairly with the students, which means U-N-I-O-N.

To some a union of college athletes might sound crazy, but they need to step back and think twice.  First, students in many, many cases are also workers, often to support the costs of college itself and certainly their lives while trying to study.  They work in every nook and cranny of the institutions, shuffling library books, making beds, serving on the line and busing the tables later, and on and on and on.  No one disputes the fact that these students work nor does anyone pretend that they are somehow not students because they are paid for their work.  Why then would the 40 to 50 hours per week athletes put into practice and preparation to play seem less like work or make them less students when they show up in class?  Secondly, in other countries the notion of unionized students is not so unique.  The associations have different levels of clout and bargaining ability but the one thing that is true is that they represent students in direct discussions with institutions. 

Looking just at men’s basketball and football at the top, Division I level, there are about 20,000 student-athlete-workers who would be part of the “unit.”  The organizing wouldn’t be a walk in the park.  Many coaches could teach regular bosses something about being autocratic and in fact sports is where some of them have no doubt learned these models, so they wouldn’t rollover easily.  The professional players’ associations could be real assets here and provide role models and advocates to offset the opposition. 

Organizing players at this level is also good for unions.  Seeing the Hornets’ Chris Paul as a player’s union representative at the NBA bargaining table or the Saints’Drew Brees in a similar position sent exactly the right messages to unionized workers in New Orleans for example.  Multiple this throughout all of the nooks and crannies of big time college athletics and let that trickle down, and the benefits to organized labor and the overall perception of unions would multiple the good will many times over of the countless union sponsored service projects which go unrecognized.

The Players’ Associations and other student advocates, like the PIRGs, should help resource such an organizing drive along with Change to Win and the AFL-CIO as the key labor federations.   Unions need to be in this conversation and let the NCAA and colleges know that it’s “game on!”

I’m down!  Sign ‘em up!  Unionize college athletes now!