Refuting the NCAA’s Argument

Yesterday, the National Labor Relations Board in Illinois ruled that athletes at Northwestern University can be considered employees of the college, and these athletes can unionize for the purpose of determining fair compensation and collective bargaining. Northwestern University is appealing this decision, but this ruling is being pointed to as a landmark.

The National Collegiate Athletic Association has become predictable as a business organization, just as colleges across the nation have become predictable when it comes to money. In essence, the cost of an education is excessive—and becomes more so year to year—yet the money must be safe-guarded lest a student sees an “inappropriate benefit,” other than the mysteriously subjective component we refer to as “education.” Heaven forbid an alumnus contributes to the well-being of a student lest the NCAA interferes in the transfer because of ethical issues (and we can surmise that financial expenditures are the only ethics that matter to the NCAA). The case of student-athletes at Northwestern University standing up and declaring solidarity for their right to earn money as student-athletes has been a long-time coming, and it points to a larger problem in colleges everywhere: money going into colleges is not distributed fairly for the benefit of college students.

This past Sunday, March 23rd, NCAA President, Mark Emmert, appeared on Meet the Press to state the tired, old case that students are not employees. He stated, “These are student-athletes. These are young men and women who should continue to be students and not be unionized employees. Those are two different [things.]” The concept of a student-worker is not exactly unprecedented, nor do we need to differentiate the two as completely different categories. Most colleges employ student-workers primarily to deliver the education to other students. Most 100 level courses are taught by graduate students, who are often paid a pittance to teach the courses; in fact, these graduate students are underpaid under the same auspices which student-athletes are stifled: grad students receive the benefit of education, so fair payment is not necessary. Graduate students who teach are poorly compensated, yet they deliver the majority of the education for which the NCAA points as the primary reward for student-athletes. These instructors are employees of the college, and they are not two different roles. Colleges often discourage unionization of graduate students for fear of paying a fair wage, also. This is well-documented in the book, Will Teach for Food: Academic Labor in Crisis by Cary Nelson. Heaven forbid the majority understand that those who “get” education are “given” education by those who are also underpaid, especially in light of rising tuition costs. The cost of an education is rising as the educators’ wages are diminishing and students are being denied fair compensation for their athletic and academic work.

Emmert also states in the forum, “Are you taking students and converting them to employees?…In order to unionize them, you have to say these are employees. If you’re going to do that, it completely changes the relationship. I don’t know why you’d want them to be students…Don’t let calculus get in the way.” Emmert works against his own association’s mission statement when he says this, and he betrays the validity of sports at colleges in their entirety. The idea of sports, traditionally, has been to assist students in their academic endeavors, teaching student-athletes important elements as discipline, values, camaraderie, physics, morals, rules, comprehension, communication, competition, fairness, health, interviewing, rhetoric, sportsmanship, diplomacy, and more. All of these lessons can be applied to any discipline studied at a college, and it’s the primary reason that sports have been allowed to originate and flourish in the college environment. The only element of the relationship that might change involves the transfer of the money that is received by the colleges, which is Emmert’s primary concern. (And calculus doesn’t necessarily get in the way of sports; it’s actually a viable component.)

To be fair, Emmert did advocate the allotment of a couple thousand dollars as stipend to college athletes, to help family attend games, eat, and the like. The NCAA committee has twice taken votes on this and struck it down. Emmert and others at the NCAA realize that a stipend might pacify the movement and prevent unionization of student-athletes. If unionization occurs, Emmert and others know that they will lose control of the allotment of nearly a billion dollars of revenue. Ultimately, this is the mission of the NCAA: to control the allocation of the riches that college sports has wrought.

Emmert stated, “The vast majority of the revenue flows into the NCAA and goes right out to the universities, either directly or indirectly through the support of these championships. The money is not going to colleges, and they’re not sitting on it. It’s supporting 450,000 kids. It’s a big, big amount of money.” Everyone concedes that college sports generate a big amount of money, but it is debatable whether or not it is used to support nearly half-a-million students. The control the NCAA has allows for the flow of the money to go to administrators, college coaches, and brick-and-mortar structures and equipment. I will concede that a portion of the money is used to fund all of the sporting endeavors under the blanket of collegiate sports, which is a good use of funds, but the NCAA must also concede that a majority of the revenue ends up inflating the salaries of coaches and athletic directors at larger schools, as college-athletes are prevented from accepting any compensation under the auspices of student-athlete. Bruce Pearl, recently hired at Auburn, basically confirmed this when he asked a large, frothy crowd in Alabama, “Have you seen the contract I signed yet?”

The President of the NCAA, Mark Emmert, stated primarily in his interview on NBC’s Meet the Press, “The game-changer in life for all of us is getting an education. A real, valid, legitimate education, making sure they can do that without having to worry about the costs and how it’s going to be paid for. Making a commitment to a life-time education, I think, makes great sense.”

There is a problem here, and it is not students asking for a cut of the money of which they primarily earn for the institution…the problem is greed and an unwillingness to share. The problem involves those in authority wanting to hoard the money for the few that are in their positions of authority, while telling those who are not in authoritative positions, “Sorry. We can’t afford it.”…You know, the same problem we have in just about every corporation or business endeavor in America.

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Scott C. Guffey
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NBC’s Meet the Press interview is property of NBC Universal Media, LLC.


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