Imagine the pure, unbridled greed of those college athletes who happen to compete in sports like basketball and football. They keep telling their benefactors that they don’t like using their bodies to make billions of dollars that they never see.
First it was those former players, like former UCLA basketball player Ed O’Bannon or former Nebraska football player Sam Keller. They sued the NCAA because the NCAA spent years using their likeness and image to sell video games and merchandise without giving them any of the profits generated by those ventures.
Then, while that case is still making its way through the legal system, the upstart athletes from Northwestern actually went out and tried to start a union. Kain Colter, the quarterback for Northwestern, is the face of this new idea. He’s asking for a union to help the players at major schools have a voice in rules that affect them, including provisions for multiyear scholarships and a promise that if a player is injured, his scholarship remains in place, two things that aren’t guaranteed. The athletes also want the NCAA to adopt a more concerned attitude toward concussions.
In an article on ESPN.com, Colter was quoted as saying:
“The action we’re taking isn’t because of any mistreatment by Northwestern. We love Northwestern. The school is just playing by the rules of their governing body, the NCAA. We’re interested in trying to help all players — at USC, Stanford, Oklahoma State, everywhere. It’s about protecting them and future generations to come.
“Right now the NCAA is like a dictatorship. No one represents us in negotiations. The only way things are going to change is if players have a union.”
The NCAA’s response was to be expected. The NCAA said that since the athletes aren’t employees, they cannot form a union.
That’s the crux of the matter. Big-time college athletics are a multi-billion dollar venture, with money coming from television revenues, merchandising and ticket sales. People are paying a lot of money to see these athletes perform. Athletes are expected to practice up to 20 hours a week, not counting time for studying film, lifting, and other ventures that are not counted as practice hours. In all, most athletes put in a full schedule preparing for their sport. Then they are supposed to fulfill their responsibilities as students. For this, they are given, if lucky, a full scholarship. Most athletes playing in the revenue producing sports are given a full scholarship, which includes tuition, room and board and books.
For years, this was expected to be a fair trade. For years, even though it was a bad trade, athletes accepted this trade with the knowledge that a college education would help them in the professional world. But then the television money went from a lot to astronomical. Billions of dollars are being made, enough that college presidents, those entrusted with looking out for the student athletes, started looking for the best deals for their particular university. Traditional conferences were torn up as universities jumped from one league to another, all in search of the best television revenue package. That’s why Syracuse left the Big East Conference for the Atlantic Coast Conference and the University of Maryland will leave the Atlantic Coast Conference for the Big Ten.
Once the college presidents stopped worrying about the integrity of their school and went for the best deal, it was hard for the athletes who made that money to say that college sports was meant to build their character.
O’Bannon and Keller made the first move, suing the NCAA for profiting off their likenesses and won a $40 million settlement from EA Sports, but are still waiting to go to trial against the NCAA. O’Bannon certainly paid attention to the announcement about the attempted formation of a union, telling Bloomberg.com:
“I love that they’re conscious of their surroundings and conscious of the money that’s being made,” O’Bannon said of the Northwestern players, most of whom probably won’t be in college when their case is decided. “The players, they’re in a unique position in that they make a lot of money for a lot of people, including their respective universities, but don’t have a voice.”
The thought of giving athletes a voice frightens the NCAA. They argue that they have all the athletes’ best interests in mind, including those who play sports that don’t produce revenue.
The NCAA’s argument that the money universities receive through television revenues helps maintain other sports is flawed. One look at the salaries paid not just to head football and basketball coaches but to their assistants, negates that argument. If the money that a major athletic team from one of the power conferences was used to finance cross country, soccer and gymnastics, an argument could be made supporting the student athlete excuse.
After all, other than football and basketball, most college athletic teams do not produce revenue. So, despite the fact that a college softball player may put in the same amount of work and practice time as a college football player, the argument that the college softball player is an employee is less pronounced. The athletic scholarship to an athlete from a non-revenue producing sport, more often than not, doesn’t approach the full scholarship afforded to basketball and football players, even if the commitment of time is the same. The difference is that the college softball player spends less time on television (yes, ESPN broadcasts college softball but the ratings don’t approach basketball or football) than the basketball player and doesn’t receive the same exposure as the basketball or football player.
The basketball and football player produce money. And this attempt to form a union brings those players one step closer to getting a piece of their work.