This past week the first brick was laid in the inevitable change of college athletics when it was ruled that Northwestern football players could unionize. And with the NCAA already speaking of possible stipends for players and the current lawsuit by Ed O’Bannon against EA Sports more pivotal legal decisions will soon be made that change the landscape of college athletics. What does this all mean? Is this the correct direction to go? So many answers but of course all anyone is focused on right now is the short-term and the money involved.
Sports radio and television shows were loaded with talk of paying college athletes this past week. And of the hours and hours of talk, the focus was on the pay for players. That is obviously the glamor topic but few people raised questions about the big picture. Where will these decisions take college athletics in the future?
There is without a doubt that with the increase of money in and around college athletics that some type of compensation for the student-athletes is bound to occur. However first of all I feel that unionization is not a smart move. The players want to unionize, to band together and have a say in various issues. Well although not as powerful as a union schools already have SAAC (Student-Athlete Advisory Committee) groups that deal with such issues. Yes a union would have greater power, however do you think once this union is formed that it will simply stop at safety issues? Or will players, who realize their power, begin to push for pay…for salaries and compensation? In addition if the players move from student-athletes to employees, guess what happens. You can be taxed for pay, and aren’t they already complaining about not having enough “pizza” money. Also employees are held accountable therefore if you don’t perform, such as say University of Missouri quarterback James Franklin during his junior year, then guess what…you can be fired. Have you ever heard of a union that never went on a strike? Well how would you like to see an October Saturday if the players decide not to play because of some issue, it could happen. Now again this is not to minimize the student-athletes concerns but to look at other venues of action.
One argument about paying student-athletes is look at the money they bring in. Well coming from my perspective athletics is an arm of public relations for schools. Schools use athletics to promote themselves, draw attention, money and future students. This is done with highly visible, winning programs. This money brought in to schools by programs such as football and men’s basketball help support the other sports such as softball, swimming and diving and golf. If the money brought in by the large television contracts is awarded to the players of football and men’s basketball what happens to the other sports? As with the majority of things in life, follow the money.
As much money that is being brought in there is simply not enough to cover every athlete in every sport. Schools outside the five power conferences do not bring in the same type of money. The money, although vast, is not equal. If the NCAA starts paying their football and men’s basketball players more players will gravitate towards those sports. The same goes for the colleges themselves. Right now private schools are allowed to unionize, but at some point, somehow larger public schools such as Ohio State, USC, etc. will find a way to get in on the “pay for play” issue. This will create a further separation between the haves and have-nots in college. Prep athletes will of course not only choose the aforementioned sports but head to the schools that can afford to pay.
Kain Colter, the Northwestern football player who spear-headed the labor unionization issue, began this process for the reason of protecting the players. His intentions were well placed. There are issues that need to be addressed for student-athletes. The issue of medical coverage, player safety, scholarship guarantees, etc. There is certainly enough money to place in a fund that covers medical injuries (however lifetime injury issues are an issue as well; players assume the risk of injury by choosing to play a sport. They are not required to play it). Scholarships should be guaranteed. Not on a year by year basis but rather a four-year deal.
The issue involving the O’Bannon lawsuit is an interesting one. Yes the NCAA has benefited by promoting their players on video games, jerseys, etc. However again if the money is simply dealt to those sports or players in those sports how does that affect the other less visible sports? Now if it was possible to take a portion of those earnings and award that to players in some type of future fund, that may solve the issue of compensation. But let’s not forget that the players are indeed receiving compensation…scholarships.
Where is the NCAA headed from here? I think an adjustment to the age requirements should be looked at. I think baseball has the ideal draft laws, come out of high school and try to earn money then or go to college and wait. I think once a scholarship has been signed the player needs to stay for two or three years. This is easily applicable to all sports except football. Very few football players would be physically ready to compete for a payday directly out of high school. For this issue I have seen some people suggest a development training program by the sport agencies and training facilities. I am not sure what the solution is for football players but I think allowing them to pursue their careers when they want or requiring them to stay in college for a period of time if they decide to go that route is a start.
The NCAA is at a cross-roads right now. Will the players unionize? Should schools pay for play? What will happen if they do pay? Who can pay? The NCAA does need to lessen its business-like approach and return the focus on the STUDENT-athletes portion of their mantra. The rise in coaching salaries and television contracts which led to conference shifting is a clear example of business led thinking gone wrong. A return to academics and student-athletes is necessary. This is done by preparing them for life beyond sports, focusing on health issues, guaranteeing scholarships and truly assisting them in class. But I do not feel that simply paying football and men’s basketball players will solve everything, instead it will only raise more issues and end any semblance of college athletics. People should be focusing not on money but on education and protection of the student-athletes because a focus on the money is what helped create the problems in the first place.