On Tuesday, Northwestern football players began the process of forming a labor union of student-athletes to gain better benefits and conditions from an NCAA that many see as an overpowered dictatorship.
Everything the athletes have said is true. Athletes deserve more, particularly those in high-risk, extremely high-revenue sports like football and basketball. The NCAA is too powerful and makes far too much money off of athletes it practically owns. Student-athletes absolutely need a way to check this power.
Unfortunately, I’m not sold that a labor union is the right solution.
To be fair, I have the utmost respect for the student-athletes who have put in the time and effort to start CAPA (the name of the proposed student-athlete union). These commendable athletes are showing the foresight to look beyond scoreboards and win-loss columns and tackle a very real issue that will impact the athletes of the future more than anyone.
And it is a real and pressing issue. Those Northwestern football players and their fellow revenue-sport athletes across the country deserve more. They deserve some share of the millions of dollars of profit they help bring to the NCAA in television contracts and marketing programs each year, risking their own health, well-being and future athletic careers to earn money they’ll never see a dime of.
They at least deserve rights to their own name and image to make money from. The great irony of college sports is that Texas A&M football can rake in untold amounts of money using Johnny Manziel‘s name and image, but Manziel can’t make $20 selling autographs without a suspension. Nowhere is that point more laughably evident than this screenshot of the A&M website selling photos of Manziel within the very article announcing his suspension for profiting off his own name.
There’s plenty more already written on the problems (The Atlantic‘s “The Shame of College Sports” is long, but an absolute must-read if you’re interested in the subject). I want to turn to the idea of a labor union as a means to fixing them.
The worry for those with a stake in Olympic and non-revenue sports is that while the football and basketball players could be getting the rewards they fully deserve, we might wind up being the ones who foot the bill.
It’s no secret that a labor union (if it’s deemed legal under the National Labor Relations Board) would give athletes more power in making demands of the NCAA. But right now, those demands stand to benefit only a small portion of the student-athlete population. The proposed CAPA union would begin by representing only FBS football and Division I basketball players – including all student-athletes at this point would open up too many extra cans of worms, and likely doom the proposed union to rejection under the National Labor Relations Act.
It would be a great success for all student-athletes if some started to gain more benefits now with the expectation of all sports joining them in the future. But most models for paying high-revenue student-athletes might doom the non-revenue sports to no future at all.
The Sports Illustrated model was a high-profile plan for how to pay student-athletes. It’s most controversial proposal: cutting nearly all non-revenue sports to come up with the money to pay the remainders. If a student-athlete labor union is able to push the NCAA enough for athlete payment, the likely candidates to actually pay are swimming and diving programs and their non-revenue brethren.
That’s why I’m uneasy about the idea of a labor union that doesn’t represent all student-athletes. In helping some, we could destroy the foundations of others.
If CAPA is officially recognized as a labor union, I would urge the leadership to include a commitment to serving all student-athletes very prominently in its mission statement. Getting every student-athlete reclassified as a university employee (as football and basketball players would be if CAPA is accepted) might be tedious and difficult.* But a labor union can still consciously choose to work for the betterment of all of their student-athlete brothers and sisters.
*Just one example: Football and basketball are both “head count scholarship” sports, meaning athletes can earn a full scholarship or no scholarship. In “equivalency” sports, athletes can earn partial scholarships. How do we classify partial scholarship athletes? As part-time employees? What about non-scholarship athletes? The legal headaches are nearly overwhelming and will take a length of time to sort out fully.
But I personally would propose a different fix to the situation, at least a different first step: instead of working out a complex system to pay athletes or sign contracts instead of scholarship tenders, we should first drop the antiquated NCAA rules preventing athletes from making money off of their names and skills.
If Johnny Football wants to make extra cash selling autographs, why shouldn’t he be able to? If a swimmer wants to advertise private swim lessons, why should he or she be barred from using his or her own name, skills and time to make some extra spending cash?
NCAA athletes are the only classification of student specifically barred from using their talents for personal monetary gain. A brilliant chemistry student on academic scholarship can tutor for money in his or her spare time, and a bright young business student can start his own company while in college and start raking in the dough that way. Meanwhile a star swimmer like Missy Franklin can’t accept prize money at a Grand Prix meet or even advertise a learn-to-swim event without getting slapped with a suspension from NCAA Compliance Office.
When I was a journalism student and a swimmer at the University of Minnesota, I was allowed to use my reporting skills to write for money in whatever publication I wished, but I wasn’t allowed to advertise swimming clinics on the side to pay for those hefty swimmer grocery bills. Why is it that an athletic scholarship means the NCAA suddenly owns an athlete’s name, image and skill?
Dropping those ridiculous regulations takes away from no one (except the NCAA itself, which seems to be in no shortage of incoming wealth) while allowing all to benefit. At the very least, it’s a great first step to getting athletes at least a piece of the huge bounties they currently earn for their schools, conferences and administrative organizations.
Of course, getting anything like that done requires backers of NCAA athletes to have a say in NCAA proceedings, which brings us back to the very thing I’m halfway arguing against: a labor union.
One of CAPA’s rallying cries has been to get student-athletes a “seat at the table” in determining NCAA policy. Student-athletes should absolutely have input into how the NCAA operates, and even if CAPA never becomes officially recognized as a union, it would be wise for the NCAA to heed its momentum and the widespread dissatisfaction within athlete circles by voluntarily bringing more student-athletes into the fold to help reform what is clearly a broken system.