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Don’t Close Your Eyes, Unionize

From ‘student-athletes’ to ‘worker-athletes’?

Apr 28, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 31 • By JOSEPH EPSTEIN
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The great American fraud that dare not speak its name, though anyone who owns a television set is aware of it, is college athletics. Amateur though they are supposed to be, the only thing truly amateur about them is that they do not pay the (supposed) students who play them, at least not directly.

David Clegg

David Clegg

The two great money-making college sports, of course, are football and basketball—money-making, that is, if the school has a successful program. I love that word “program,” a euphemism behind which lies a vast network of recruiting, excessive practice time, heavy travel during the school year, and coaches paid millions of dollars in the hope that they will, through the “program,” bring in many millions more.

The least-noted award in all of sports must be the Academic All-Americans. Some rare kids playing big-time college football or basketball are no doubt able to get some studying done, but only the greatest naïf would believe that for any major college athlete the classroom is remotely where the action is.

A joke chez Epstein suggests how much better LeBron James would be had he had a solid liberal-arts education. Some of the best players in the National Basketball Association—James, Kevin Garnett, Kobe Bryant—cut out the middleman, so to say, and went straight from high-school to the pros. Many other pro basketball players have been what is called “one and done,” meaning they left college for the pros after a single year of college competition. That year was only there to demonstrate to the professional franchises how talented they are, and thus jack up their salary demands.

A number of years ago I gave 
a lecture at Clemson University, a school with major football and basketball programs. A man from the physical education and recreation department was assigned to escort me around the campus. I asked him if he had ever had any contact with William (“The Fridge”) Perry, the first famous 300-pound lineman in the National Football League, then playing for the Chicago Bears, who had earlier gone to Clemson. 

“I did,” he said. “William wrote a paper for me on the use of public parks, and when I told him that the paper didn’t really sound like him, he left quietly. The next day two of his academic advisers showed up in my office to tell me that I had hurt William’s feelings. When I asked them if William had in fact written the paper, they allowed that he hadn’t actually written it, but he did do some of the research.” As I say, they have a strong program at Clemson.

No one talks about it, and I have never seen any statistics on the subject, but surely a preponderance of major college football and basketball players are African American. Watching the University of Wisconsin in the Final Four NCAA tournament, I mentioned to my wife that Wisconsin started four white players. “Is that,” she asked, “legal?”

In exchange for playing on a Division One school team, young African Americans get free schooling and room and board and sometimes small living allowances. (Every so often there is a far from shocking scandal when it is revealed that an alumnus has slipped a few grand into the pockets of a star athlete, or bought a convertible for him.) Most of these athletes hope that their college years will serve as entrée into the NFL or the NBA, where million-dollar contracts await. Only a small number will, of course, succeed in this hope, but, what the hell, it’s worth a shot. A few among the basketball players will play in Europe. Others will drop out, drift off, for the most part not in the least touched, intellectually anyway, by their few years in college.

Before last year’s NFL draft, watching ESPN, I saw pictures of the players likely to go highest in the draft. Some had their shirts off; a few posed showing their biceps. I felt as if I were watching a Roman slave market, with gladiators up for sale. Multi-millionaire gladiators, to be sure, but gladiators all the same. They risk their bodies for our pleasure. The feeling wasn’t a pleasant one.

The money in big-time college sports isn’t all cash on the barrel head from fan tickets and whopping television receipts. Successful college basketball and sports programs pay off in other ways. In 1996, the year that Northwestern University’s football team went to the Rose Bowl, both student admission applications and alumni donations went up substantially. And so it must be at other schools.

In January of this year it was at Northwestern that Kain Colter, the school’s graduating quarterback, came out on behalf of college athletes’ unionizing. Colter’s notion was that college athletes are employees, and as such deserve the rights of employees, health insurance notable among them, since college football is a dangerous sport. Northwestern University’s vice president for athletics, a man named Jim Phillips, responded with a predictable barrage of clichés, congratulating Colter and those of his fellow team members who signed a petition to unionize. “We love and are proud of our students,” his press release read. “Northwestern teaches them to be leaders and independent thinkers who will make a positive impact on their communities, the nation and the world. Today’s action demonstrates that they are doing so.” Phillips went on to say that “Northwestern believes that our student-athletes are not employees, and collective bargaining is therefore not the appropriate method to address these concerns. However, we agree that the health and academic issues being raised by our student-athletes and others are important ones that deserve further consideration.” Note, please, “student-athletes,” a phrase with a truth-quotient somewhere near zero.

The response of the NCAA officials also leaned heavily on student-athletes. “This union-backed attempt to turn student-athletes into employees undermines the purpose of college: an education. [My italics, flashing neon not being available.] Student-athletes are not employees, and their participation in college sports is voluntary. We stand for all student-athletes, not just those the unions want to professionalize. Student-athletes are not employees within any definition of the National Labor Relations Act or the Fair Labor Standards Act. We are confident the National Labor Relations Board will find in our favor, as there is no right to organize student-athletes.”

The NCAA’s confidence was misplaced, and the NLRB found that the college athletes do have the right to organize. The decision appears to have been based in good part on the obvious fact that they, the athletes, are in school strictly because of their athletic ability. As Peter Sung Ohr, a regional director of the NLRB, put it: “The record makes clear that the employer’s scholarship players are identified and recruited in the first instance because of their football prowess and not because of their academic achievement in high school. .  .  . No examples were provided of scholarship players being permitted to miss entire practices and/or games to attend to their studies.”

Neither Northwestern nor the Big Ten nor the NCAA accepted the decision, and all plan to appeal it. To what college athlete unionization, if finally cleared of all legal hurdles, is likely to lead is unclear. Medical protection is high on the list of the athletes’ demands. Being allowed to receive money for endorsements is another agenda item. Practice hours is another possible matter of concern. Will college athletes be allowed to strike, just before, say, bowl games or the NCAA basketball tournament? Anything could happen.

As someone who invests no strong belief in the goodness of labor unions, or in the union movement, whose great period of idealism has been over for more than half a century, I find myself welcoming the attempt of college athletes to unionize. Doing so at least injects a note of reality into the deep fraudulence that has been campus athletics. Employees is what college athletes are, and to pretend that they are otherwise—that they are student-athletes or, as I used occasionally to hear Northwestern’s football team described, scholar-athletes—is a lame joke. One cannot predict for a certainty whether the appeals of the NLRB decision will be heeded or not. But my best guess is that the outlook for the future is for unionized halfbacks to be crashing into the secondary and power forwards with the union label to be slam dunking during the Final Four. Dink Stover of Yale, I daresay, will be spinning in his grave.

Joseph Epstein, a frequent contributor, is the author, most recently, of A Literary Education and Other Essays.

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