Other Opinion: Student-Athletes deserve more, but union might not be the best fix

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.

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6 years ago

Here’s where I have a problem with this. I know multiple people who are the best in their sport in the world. I’m related to one, been to the Olympics twice in Greece and Beijing. They don’t want more of anything other than attention to their sport!!! Softball, swimming, gymnastics they all want one thing more exposure to the world so their sport doesn’t die out because everyone only wants to play football. So using their face to bring in a crowd is something they like specially when it’s for a college they love! Football and basketball cry foul because they want one thing, money. Read this and then tell me they deserve more (it’s safe for work) http://m.bleacherreport.com/articles/1588301-theres-no-crying-in-college-the-case-against-paying-college-athletes You… Read more »

Reply to  Mcmflyguy
6 years ago

Don’t worry, the way football is going with injuries and law suits, etc. it won’t be long before colleges get out of the game. At least most of the one’s that lose money. They won’t be able to afford it.

Steve Nolan
6 years ago

That article would be pretty hilarious if it were on, say, The Onion.

Seriously, just replace a couple words in this section – “Athletic scholarships cover just about everything a student-athlete needs to survive for four years at a major university. Campus housing, daily medical care and free meals via training table are all included. Tuition and books are covered as well.” – and you can describe how lucky slaves were to have their needs attended to by their kind and caring owners. They got free room and board! And a trip overseas! (Which, oh my God, that article actually mentions as being a perk for college athletes, bwahhahaa.)

Reply to  Steve Nolan
6 years ago

4 Years A Slave .

Bwahahah . The world awaits the diaries . We might have to wait 150 years for so they can learn to read & write. Maybe longer at NC Chapel Hill.

Might have to go straight to the movie .

Reply to  Steve Nolan
6 years ago

Steve – this slavery metaphor doesn’t make much sense. In slavery, if someone wanted out or do something different they were prevented, punished or killed. In college athletics, you have the choice to represent a college or not be involved in college athletics. In previous comments on other articles you speak of a free market. A free market would be a mass exodus of athletes from college atheltics to other semi-pro or pro leagues to the point where college athletics becomes insignificant. I hate people who say the NCAA has to change, where really a free market would dictate them to change based on lose of talent, revenue and viewership. The NCAA is now a slave/master relationship – it’s like… Read more »

Steve Nolan
Reply to  Pat
6 years ago

Well, yeah, I’m not directly comparing the two. (I quoted that Taylor Branch article mentioned in this post in another comment of mine, he described it as having a “whiff of the plantation.” That I can buy.) And why have to create an entire new league? (Which, I mean, seems incredibly implausible if not downright impossible.) Just open up the one we already have. Everyone’s pretty much already on board with athletes being compensated for their abilities – with tuition, room and board, stipends. Why not just turn that into cash money and be done with the whole thing? And I just want to quote this one little part of your comment: ” it’s like other businesses where money talks”… Read more »

Swim Fan
6 years ago

A labor union for student athletes is a ridiculous notion, in my opinion. If one doesn’t care for the terms & conditions with being an NCAA student-athlete with one’s college education paid for by another party, then one can certainly drop out of the NCAA athletics portion of it and pay for college oneself. What we need to also recognize, perhaps, is that you should go to college primarily (in an ideal world) for the education.

Reply to  Swim Fan
6 years ago

Also remember that the vast majority of athletes pay their own way..

About Jared Anderson

Jared Anderson

Jared Anderson swam for nearly twenty years. Then, Jared Anderson stopped swimming and started writing about swimming. He's not sick of swimming yet. Swimming might be sick of him, though. Jared was a YMCA and high school swimmer in northern Minnesota, and spent his college years swimming breaststroke and occasionally pretending …

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