By Rowan Kane
College athletics, as driven by the NCAA, is the perfect microcosm of modern American capitalism, as driven by the financial industry: it has made massive amounts of money for a very few – primarily white men; it has compromised the very foundations upon which it was built – primarily traditions of amateurism and domestic manufacturing, respectively; and it has distracted and disenfranchised those whom it exploits – players and the working class.
Much like 2008, when many were shocked to see that many of the structures that supported wealth were eerily hollow, the cartel that is the NCAA has begun to crack. However, unlike the aftermath of the sudden crash of 2008 in which too few regulations were implemented to prevent a reoccurrence, the descent of the NCAA has been slow to start but it is likely to pick up pace.
If, in coming years, college athletes are able challenge the NCAA’s power, we will be able to look at March 26th, 2014, as a turning point. As was widely reported, a regional director of the National Labor Review Board ruled that college athletes should be considered employees and granted the Northwestern University football team the right to organize a union. Whether the team votes to do so or not is still up in the air (as of writing there are reports that some team leaders and the coach have stated their opposition to a union) but a seed has been planted in the public consciousness: the notion that college athletes need and deserve a voice.
In signing their scholarship, college athletes sign their freedom away in a number of ways. Division I[i] athletes spend 40-50 hours per week participating in their sport. It was this devotion of time that drove a large portion of the NLRB’s ruling. But more than a simple time commitment, college athletes are now “encouraged” to attend certain classes that affects their choice of major. Kain Colter, former quarterback at Northwestern and the “face” of the unionization movement there, testified that he was “steered away from a chemistry class toward less strenuous options like sociology and African history.” There are incidences like those at the University of North Carolina where college athletes are placed in literally fake classes. The NCAA declined to sanction UNC because the “scandal was academic, not athletic.” Universities also have the right revoke scholarships due to injury and the NCAA punishes athletes who wish to transfer schools. Perhaps most absurd is the fact that scholarships are often not enough to cover food and basic needs. Shabazz Napier, star of the men’s basketball champion UConn Huskies, said, he doesn’t “feel student-athletes should get hundreds of thousands of dollars, but…there are hungry nights that I go to bed and I’m starving.” Overall, it is pretty clear that the NCAA views its “student-athletes”[ii]as more athlete than student, and believes they should be seen by millions of television viewers and not heard.
But not all college athletes are on television, the vast majority are not. This has been an argument the NCAA has regularly fallen back on. If you’ve watched college athletics, you have seen the commercials; “most of us will go pro in something other than sports”. The argument goes that a college football player from the University of Alabama – total football revenue in 2013 of $81,993,762 – is the same as a woman’s rower at the University of California – currently the top team in the country, because they are both “student-athletes” and the NCAA is the only body that stands for the continued equality of amateurism. What it has instead become is a massive, all-powerful and dangerously opaque bureaucracy. It hypocritically asserts, on the one hand, its benevolence to the “student-athlete” while, on the other, usurping the profits derived from the supposed objects of its benevolence.
Granted, the NCAA’s “student-athletes” do get some things. As one Washington Post columnist put it, “This includes first-rate training in the habits of high achievement, cool gear, unlimited academic tutoring for gratis and world-class medical care that no one else has access to.” The reality is though that the “first-rate training” is in a sport that a very few will ever profit from, the “academic tutoring” is just to make up for the time spent out of the classroom, and the “world-class medical care” is contingent on when the athlete was injured and stops upon graduation. But she is right, they do get some “cool gear”, and shouldn’t that really be enough?
The NLRB ruling did not come from nowhere. It was due to the efforts of the National College Players Association (NCPA) founded by former UCLA linebacker Ramogi Huma, and the College Athletes Players Association (CAPA), founded by Huma and Kain Colter. The backlash, on the other hand, has come from those in power and with predictable arguments. Here is the official NCAA response:
“This union-backed attempt to turn student-athletes into employees undermines the purpose of college: an education. 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.
Many student athletes are provided scholarships and many other benefits for their participation. There is no employment relationship between the NCAA, its affiliated institutions or student-athletes.
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.”
Northwestern’s response was somewhat more tempered, saying, “While we respect the NLRB process and the regional director’s opinion, we disagree with it. Northwestern believes strongly that our student-athletes are not employees, but students. Unionization and collective bargaining are not the appropriate methods to address the concerns raised by student-athletes.”
Northwestern’s statement begs the question, why are unionization and collective bargaining not appropriate methods? What are the methods in which college athletes can voice their opinions and concerns and advocate for themselves? The NCAA’s response raises even deeper concerns. Beyond the immediate anti-union rhetoric, the statement drips with condescension and apathy towards the issues the NCPA and CAPA raise, none of which have to do with being paid to play. Furthermore, how voluntary is it when, as the NCAA themselves claim, the “system… has helped literally millions of students over the past decade alone attend college.” It seems the NCAA’s position is; you either quietly “volunteer” for the current, oligarchic system or you are shit out of luck. In other words, the NCAA holds the sword of Damocles over its “student-athletes”.
This brings us full circle to the idea that the NCAA is modern American capitalism. Over the past 30-some-odd years in the US, wages have stagnated and, symbiotically, workers have been disenfranchised through the denial of collective bargaining. All the while, profits on Wall Street and for large corporations have skyrocketed and the institutions that protect workers, primarily unions and government regulations, have been popularly vilified. When the NCAA denies the right of college athletes to collectively bargain while reaping the financial rewards of the latters efforts, one cannot help but see hypocrisy. Unfortunately, it is not just college athletes who have been denied this right, but low-wage workers at Wal-Marts and Amazon and at fast food restaurants across the country, those in the weakest positions in our economy, have been left without recourse to organize and advocate for themselves. Allowing college athletes to unionize would not fix these problems, but it would give one group a powerful voice it currently lacks. Maybe soon those other groups will have a powerful voice too.
[i] For those unfamiliar with the NCAA system, Division I is the highest and most elite level of competition followed by Divisions II and III.
[ii] If you click any link in this article, make it this one.