When Northwestern football players filed paperwork to form a union, the resulting fallout was all too predictable. Official statements would be made triggering the narrative/debate that the NCAA is exploitative garbage to once again rise back to the top, especially among the majority of the media.
Battle lines drawn, black and white paint applied. Rinse, lather, repeat.
Like clockwork, Northwestern gave a “good job, good effort” pat on the back to their students and passed the buck. The NCAA hung their hat on academic endeavors and, like the Manchurian Candidate going active, the media began doing their usual dance and, in doing so, missed the point completely.
We’ll get back to the union efforts in a second, but first let’s focus on Dan Wetzel. Now, I’m not going to attempt to take him to task, but Dan’s work illustrates a mindset that is important to understand in this debate. In writing about the Northwestern unionization attempt, I came across a passage in his article that set off my own Manchurian Candidate response:
Registering with the labor relation board starts a process. Northwestern must respond to whether it wishes to recognize the union. The school likely will follow NCAA precedent and deny the players are employees at all. Colleges prefer to classify them as “student-athletes.”
If Northwestern rejects the union, the local labor board will hold a hearing on the matter, listen to both sides and make a determination on who is correct. In rough terms, the debate is over whether the players really are “student-athletes” or whether they’re employees compensated by scholarships, room, board and other items.
Wetzel’s flippant use of the term student-athlete made my mind go back to a previous piece that he did, regarding rampant violations of NCAA rules in college football:
Amateurism is a bankrupt concept. It was invented by British aristocrats in the mid-1800s as a way to keep working-class athletes from succeeding at their elitist pursuits. Basically, as long as guys who had to labor in factories six days a week were worn out from the work and lacked time to practice, the rich guys who never dealt with such concerns would continue to be superior at sailing or dressage or cricket or whatever. So the bourgeoisie who didn’t need the money declared it noble to play for no pay. How nice of them. Their true reasoning, of course, was to assure the continuation of their favored status on an uneven playing field of competition.
This detestable idea was later co-opted by the NCAA and the modern Olympic Games (the ancient Greek athletes were actually paid). The public was then repeatedly sold the idea of the innocence of amateurism and sold it well. This conveniently allowed the powerful administrators to control all the revenue produced.
Amateurism is a sham in practice, too, one that simply isn’t being followed or respected, as story after story after story proves. So many of the athletes, players and administrators don’t believe in it. That’s the value of the coverage. It’s made denying the extent of the violations laughable.
The above belief is why Wetzel places student-athlete in quotation marks and pays it no mind. To him, and many others, it’s a joke, a failed concept that is outdated and needs to change.
However, it was never supposed to be like that in the NCAA.
The amateurism that the NCAA has espoused wasn’t supposed to be a continuation of the uneven playing field that Wetzel describes. While the British wealthy were likely looking to hold down their more impoverished counterparts, college athletics were meant to empower, not on the field, but off of it through education. The idea was to have the playing field leveled so that all potential student-athletes would have access to an education and not just have it’s member institutions create an arms-race for athletic prowess and the monetary windfall that follows.
That obviously isn’t the case today. Education has taken a back seat and to that point, Wetzel is dead-on that the NCAA’s goals “simply [aren’t] being followed or respected” to any degree by many of its member institutions. However, pointing the finger solely at the NCAA, conferences, and the schools is rather disingenuous. The public at large has bought in to the fact that the education, which in reality is the compensation given to student-athletes, isn’t even close to fair compensation for student-athletes in revenue sports.
This is particularly mind-boggling when you consider that the very same people making such an argument leave college with crippling debt that is now pushing the $30,000 mark and rising annually. Depending on the loan, that $30,000 could easily turn into over $40,000 paid over ten years. And that number likely only holds true if you are paying in-state tuition. Go out-of-state and you are looking at $20,000/year on average at a public university and close to $30,000/year on average if you go for a private school education (source).
However, despite the money and debt headache that scholarship student-athletes are spared, it is worth very little, if anything, should they not graduate or graduate with a worthless degree. While four-year graduation rates are at an all time high of 81%, that number fails to tell the whole story. Just take a look at a team who has over half their starters majoring in “general studies” or some similar major that is an obvious vehicle to keep kids academically eligible. North Carolina basically had athletes attend fake classes and a Florida State teacher detailed how the football culture in Tallahassee rules all.
With these issues, it’s no wonder the public at large sees a student-athlete’s education as worthless compensation and push for some sort of payment, even if it is a modest stipend. However, that’s about as effective as attempting to treat someone with a gunshot wound by informing them that they’re bleeding and sending them on their way home with a bottle of pain killers. Sure the pain is going to be dulled for a while, but it’s all basically a large gamble by not going after the obvious problem.
As much as I loathe David Shaw, he made an excellent point on this very matter:
“I like to say that our job is to teach these guys how to make a living and not have them make a living in college.”
Because, even if you pay these guys, after college is done, then what? How is paying a player for four or five years and abruptly cutting them off any less exploitative than the current model? If the focus never returns to education, a pay for play model is just as morally bankrupt for these kids.
Even worse, the NCAA is largely powerless to actually be the agent for change here (or too inept, take your pick). The power doesn’t lie within the NCAA, it never has. It’s everyone’s favorite whipping boy because they happen to be the one that writes the rules, while the conferences and member institutions who actually hold the power (read: the ever increasing absurdly huge payouts and media contracts) laugh in their collective face. The NCAA can write bylaws until they are blue in the face, but if the universities themselves don’t take care of the student-athletes, the fight is over before it even begins.
And that brings us back to Northwestern.
Even though “pay for play” arguments have been brought up yet again, that isn’t their focus. One of their players even went public on Reddit’s /r/cfb to say as much. Their endgame is to protect the student-athlete both from injury and from having their chance at an education stripped away. After all, these days there is little to stop, say, Alabama from cutting eight players that haven’t yet graduated to make oversigning work this year. And what if one of those eight gets injured in an offseason workout? ‘Bama could take away that scholarship and further cut that player off from receiving the usual medical care the team usually provides and then they have to foot the bill as well as tuition costs.
And yes, this actually happens and as that story shows, it isn’t just limited to the SEC and football.
In short, Northwestern players are attempting to unionize because if schools don’t give a damn and the NCAA is powerless, who is fighting for them? What recourse do they have to try and fight for their own future?
Despite these players best efforts, though, this unionization attempt will likely fail. Even though student-athletes do help bring in money for their schools and take very real risks in their athletic endeavors, I don’t see a court ever considering them employees. However, the impact of this act shouldn’t lie solely on it’s legal fate, it should serve as a wake up call to the NCAA and all of it’s member institutions.
This is a time where I would love to see Notre Dame take a stand and formalize our already standard practice of honoring scholarships until graduation, regardless of injury or athletic performance. A scholarship from Notre Dame ends in four ways: going pro, graduating, transfer, or failing to make the grades. We shouldn’t just be able to look kids in the eye and say this, we should be able to point to the fine print that defines this promise.
Notre Dame isn’t the only school that operates in this fashion, others certainly do as well. Those universities need to make a similar statement. Then it becomes a recruiting tool, places pressure on other schools to do the same, thereby pushing the conferences to follow suit and ultimately pushing the NCAA into action.
Much like the Northwestern union hopes, I’m rather certain there are all kinds of manner of rules, bylaws and regulations that would prevent Jack Swarbrick from standing at a podium in the near future to make such an announcement. However, that shouldn’t stop us. Every football game, we are reminded of what Notre Dame fights for. Each fight detailed in these commercials face incredible challenges as the problems tackled are some of the most difficult that our world has seen. In comparison, any NCAA red tape would seem laughable.
Every Domer knows this is right up Notre Dame’s alley. After all, this is the same school that detailed a massive expansion to the football stadium and made sure to include new classrooms, music halls, and labs in their plans. But us knowing isn’t enough. ND needs to scream it from the rooftops so it’s impossible to ignore.
College athletics are broken and the NCAA seemingly loses power by the minute. Education of student-athletes has become a punch-line and it needs to end. It’s time to fix it and truly fight for the STUDENT-athlete.