Unionize College Athletes Now!

 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!

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Between the Lines of the NBA Players Settlement

New Orleans               Gabe Feldman, professor at Tulane Law School and head of the Sports Law Department, inaugurated the first Fair Grinds Dialogue (www.fairgrinds.com) with an excellent presentation of the legal issues that underpin the strategy and tactics in the recent NBA lockout as well as other sports labor issues.  This may be one of the few situations where the 1% is part of a union (the players) engaged in “class” struggle against the 0.1% (the owners), but be that as it may the dialogue ended up being more about the issues of labor and unions than about the antics of LeBron James, Kobe Bryand, and Chris Paul.

Feldman has written extensively in law review articles about how the anti-trust laws vie for prominence with the labor law issue, and the questions were flying from the crowd as they tried to piece together how this created the battleground we all witness through the sports pages of the daily paper and ESPN.  Feldman is a realist in his assessment of the contending power of the parties, and made no bones from the very beginning of his remarks, that now in pro sport negotiations, “the owners always win.”  We are a long trek away from the early victories of sports’ unions winning the right to free agency and solid minimum player salaries.

The deal being ratified in the National Basketball Association (NBA) now as the union recertifies and the teams prepare to play again on the shortened season is another verse in that sad song.  The players had been getting 57% of the revenue and now they have agreed to get between 49-51%, giving up $300 M per year, which is $1.8 billion over the minimum 6 year length of the agreement.  Though players got some movement from owners on some “systems” issues that sweetened the settlement pill, there seems no doubt they lost a lot of ground.  Indirectly, Feldman made the point that perhaps the real negotiations to continue to watch are the fights between the owners of the big market teams and the owners of the small market outfits like the New Orleans Hornets.  The fight over a “hard cap” is at the heart of that contest, since the soft cap on salaries that will emerge under the agreement will still let players move, and if they are willing to lose money under this new agreement, it is even easier.  Everyone in the audience seemed to agree that Hornets star Chris Paul is history in New Orleans.  The Hornets could have given him $100M for 5 years and the best another team can do is $75 M.  A star of Paul’s caliber and competitiveness knows that by moving to a bigger market team, he is likely to recoup what he might leave on the table in endorsements and the chance at a championship ring.

A lot of the discussion though focused on the differences between what labor law allowed and what anti-trust allowed.  One interesting point made by Feldman is that the NBA Players’ Association might have hurt players’ unions by too transparently moving to decertify in a way that looked like a bargaining and leverage tactic.  The risk to owners though in the NBA and in other sports including smaller enterprises like Arena football and soccer is that if a court ever did hold that there were anti-trust violations then the owners would owe the players triple damages, which would be very painful.  The owners have tried to get around anti-trust requirements by saying (like the NFL) that they are single, commercial enterprises, rather than separate, autonomous teams that might be in restraint of trade.  There argument falls apart when they won’t share revenues or open their books to each other, just as the players lose some of their standing when being or not being a union seems like a ploy.

  Jerome Smith from Tambourine & Fan told a story with a poignant theme about how the head of the longshoremen’s union on the docks in his youth used to make sure they had clean water when they were playing near the tracks at the boundary line of what is now the Bywater and Faubourg Marigny, and how little the union or little people seemed to mean to a lot of the players now.  Some of the professional sports bloggers in the audience were even harsher, wondering whether or not membership in the union itself was simply expedient and tactical, rather than principled and profound.

Two hours of great conversation left us much where we began.  Feldman could not imagine a decisive test on the anti-trust argument in the near future, though in another 10 years he speculated that it could come in either hockey or basketball.  And, even at the very top of the labor aristocracy represented by the players, none of us could see labor law reform happening anytime soon that would once again make the strike weapon of the workers equal to the force of the lockouts implemented by the owners.

There may be peace, but there seems to be no reason to expect justice anytime soon.

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