Payday Coming for College Athletes

Athletes NLRB Workers

            New Orleans      The play-pretend of the NCAA, as regulator of US college and university athletes, is steadily and surely coming to an end when it comes to paying them to play.  The clock is ticking faster.  It’s now just a matter of time.

Under constant pressure, including from the courts and the NLRB, the evolution of student-athletes to worker-student-athletes has already eroded the NCAA’s arguments irreversibly.  It’s fair to say they are now simply the employer’s trade association, representing nothing other than the colleges and universities who pay their dues, rather than having a special place in protecting and advancing the athletes themselves.

The latest rules already allow athletes to profit from their images and endorsements and to receive higher stipends of a couple of grand from their universities.  Most of this involves the big-time sports, especially football and basketball, but superstars in other sports at the college-level also stand to gain.  Reading the sports pages, the daily fare now includes keeping up with the “transfer portal” which allows players to move from school to school, either where they think they have the best chance to succeed, or where coaches are recruiting them to play on their teams.  Mobility may be declining in America, but athletes are on overdrive.  A former Lafayette, Louisiana record-holding pole vaulter, jumps for Sweden because it was a better deal, just as the highest-earning pro tennis player now swings a racket for Japan.

It makes a difference too.  Take Joe Burrows, who lost the starting quarterback job at Ohio State, moved to LSU, won a national championship and a Heisman Trophy, and now a fat paycheck with the Cincinnati Bengals.  He’s not alone, and there’s a long line following him quickly.  Alabama’s coach Nick Saban says his football players made over $3 million on various goodies.  Anyone who still believes in the old NCAA line about the purity of body-and-mind in sports is lost somewhere in the pre-television era of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  Very, very old school.

The trouble isn’t over for the NCAA either by a longshot.  The newly aggressive NLRB is considering three charges of unfair labor practices relating to athletes. A case arguing that schools have violated athletes’ ability to collect wages, brought against the NCAA by a former Villanova University football player, is being tried in the U.S. Court of Appeals. In Congress, several bills aim to protect and expand college athletes’ rights have been introduced with bipartisan support.

For the universities, it’s clearly about the money.   A couple of West Coast schools that have been the backbone of the PAC-8 conference are now going Midwest with the Big-10 or Big-12 or something, just as Texas and others have consolidated with the SEC.  The TV-money is better.  The NCAA is about little else than negotiating the big deals.

Fair is fair, the product is the athletes, not the fakey two-minute pictures of the team’s campus.  Athletes are saying “show me the money.”  They’ve earned it, and they are moving quickly to getting paid.  It’s almost all over but the last of the shouting, and most of that will be from the little guys.