On Saturday, the NCAA tried to pull the wool over our eyes. The group approved a measure ensuring that, for the first time, athletic scholarships will cover the full cost of attendance. The NCAA also voted to increase stipends and stop schools from rescinding scholarships based on performance, among other measures. These moves are not unexpected; actually, they are part of a national trend. In the last few months, many individual schools have promised to guarantee scholarships for all four years. Some schools, including those in the Pac-12, have recently decided to provide medical coverage to their players.
These moves — while welcome — are little more than obfuscation. They are Band-Aids on a gaping, bleeding wound — a concussion would probably be a more apt metaphor. They are trying to stanch popular support for efforts by college athletes to unionize — to declare themselves employees who deserve benefits and a little pay. These distraction tactics by the NCAA and individual schools are just plain wrong. Athletes should not let their universities buy them off so cheaply. They should demand recognition as employees and the treatment such recognition brings. Corporate welfare just doesn’t cut it anymore.
First, a little background: In April 2014, the football team at Northwestern University voted on whether or not they wanted to form a union. Many players claimed they were essentially overworked, underpaid employees — performing hard physical labor for 50 or 60 hours a week, making millions of dollars for their school and getting virtually no monetary compensation in return. The vote was never tallied; instead, it was sealed until the National Labor Relations Board rules on whether on not scholarship athletes count as university employees (this ruling is expected any day now). The NCAA, which is not a party in the matter, nonetheless filed an amicus brief with the NLRB, claiming that a ruling in the players’ favor could “undermine the revered tradition of amateurism” in college athletics and “have a significant and irreversible, and negative impact on the future of intercollegiate athletics and higher education in the United States.”
Here’s what the Northwestern players are saying. They work long hours every week — enough to merit overtime, if they were actually paid. When they sustain concussions or other serious injuries — which they so often do — they are frequently left to cover the expenses themselves. They’re more likely to suffer a career-ending injury than they are to make it to the pros. Their coaches take home millions; their universities rake in tens of millions; and they get nothing — nothing beyond their scholarships. Athletes can’t accept anything that might look like a gift — help purchasing schoolbooks or school supplies, a little money to defray the costs of groceries or clothing — nothing. In spite of a financial aid, the average scholarship athlete ends up assuming $3,200 in debt, and some assume much more.
The NCAA’s emphasis on amateurism — that athletes are students, not employees — is more than just misguided. It deliberately ignores the reality of life for athletes at big-brand schools. And that’s what brings us to Yale.
When we assess the merits of unionization or amateurism, we should take our own circumstances, and privilege, into account. With a few notable exceptions, most Yale sports teams are not bringing in the dough as do those at Alabama or Ohio State. Furthermore, players in the Ivy League are not dependent on athletic scholarships, as Ivy League schools don’t give them out. There are definitely distinctions between the daily existence of a Yale runner and a Northwestern linebacker. Perhaps not all college athletes need to be paid, but certainly many do.
This is why unionization is the solution. For the students who actually are, in effect, working as employees, forming a union would allow them to negotiate with their universities to get the pay and benefits they deserve. I’m not sure what the standard should be to determine which college athletes qualify as employees, but hopefully the NLRB’s forthcoming ruling will clarify this.
There is considerable evidence that the doomsayers who claim that this would kill college athletics are just plain wrong. Several dozen sports economists wrote a brief opposing the NCAA’s, claiming that “the concerns that (a) college sports is too poor to afford unionization, (b) the competitive balance among teams will be fatally disrupted by unionization and (c) the advances by women athletes through Title IX will be arrested are all dubious claims …”
College athletes should not be cowed by these scare tactics or bought off by the NCAA’s stopgap measures. Let’s take that wool and set it on fire.
Scott Stern is a senior in Branford College. His column usually runs on Mondays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.