2020 continues to provide unique opportunities for reflection. No government, organization or individual has been granted clemency. 2020 magnifies the hypocrisy in us all.
The National Collegiate Athletic Association, or NCAA, is an organization that 2020 has loaded onto the microscope slide. Like other eligible athletes, I recently received NCAA President Mark Emmert’s statement on race and social justice. In the statement, President Emmert reminded student-athletes to commit to social justice and enact cultural change. Additionally, the NCAA “urged all student-athletes to exercise their right and responsibility to vote” for a better America on Nov. 3. To many, this may seem like an innocuous, even laudable press release; however, Emmert’s words grind salt into a festering wound.
Student-athletes have pleaded with the NCAA to grant us greater representation for the better part of a decade. But the Association fails to listen out of fear of losing a dime of their precious revenue flows. The bottom line: student-athletes deserve their voices to be heard.
College athletics is a big business. In the 2018-19 season, the NCAA generated about $1 billion (yes — nine zeros!) in revenue and added roughly $70 million to their net assets. Seeing such mind-boggling numbers being raked in by a non-profit organization, which is — in its own words — “dedicated” to “equipping student-athletes to succeed… throughout life,” student athletes have asked for several improvements to their working conditions ranging from long-term health coverage to immediate access to third-party opinions on injury-related playing decisions. While these pleas may seem reasonable, the NCAA is terrified of a larger threat: player payment.
Players have been requesting payment for years, claiming they should have the right to earn some — any — of the billions of dollars they generate for the NCAA by putting their labor and health on the line. The most obvious method for such a coup would be the formation of a players’ union, but the NCAA squashed the attempt as it was “undermin[ing] the purpose of college: education.” That’s a sweet sentiment from an organization that makes money televising young adults smashing their brains together every Saturday.
Enter 2020. In a year revolving around unprecedented health concerns and social separation, contact sports seem impossible. We should laud the NCAA’s decision to cancel the end of the spring season; it is a truly daring move to cancel athletics after colleges have sent all other students packing to ZoomU. As the pandemic continued, the fate of the fall season began to loom large. Some conferences wanted athletes to return to campus in order to preserve whatever shred of a season remained; others, such as the Ivy League, canceled the season so as not to jeopardize player safety or that primary purpose of college: education.
Players across the country recoiled at the idea of being used as human collateral to stabilize conference and university checkbooks. Across the country, the safe word of the working class — unionization — began to enter the national conversation again. In 2020, with the nation locked inside, desperately searching for a new intoxicating media fix, conversations that took place in the dark are now in the spotlight. So, conferences like the PAC-12 and the BIG10 caved to the frenzied mob and canceled the fall season out of deference to player health.
But then, in a paradoxical twist, players began to complain that their season was taken away. Many players were eager to risk the pandemic in order to perform on the national stage and were devastated by the lack of effort displayed by the conferences in restarting the season. #Wewwanttoplay began to dominate the conversation on that bastion of truly erudite conversation, Twitter. This new movement threatened unionization to attempt to bargain with the conferences into playing. The situation seems hopelessly complicated and our hero, President Emmert, seems to be nowhere in sight.
To untangle the mess, all sides must first make some key concessions. First, players are important. Athletes deserve to not be forced to play if they are injured. Athletes should be allowed to make decisions concerning their safety and the safety of their families. If the NCAA is unwilling to adopt these decent resolutions, then unionization may be the players’ only choice.
The players who want to unionize in an effort to play this season also have important concerns. For some, a senior season could make the difference between signing an NFL contract or never setting foot on the field again. For many, athletics provides discipline and structure in players’ lives; a structure that incentivizes academic effort via GPA eligibility requirements. For the rest, true happiness is found pursuing athletic achievement. Such purpose transcends income or GPA requirements: isn’t the pursuit of happiness a basic right of all of us?
On the other hand, unionization has incredible risks. One of the first demands of many players will be payment. Unfortunately, 2020 might be the worst financial year in the history of college athletics. Many schools, including the very wealthy Stanford and Brown, have already postponed some sports indefinitely due to high losses. To expect schools to be able to pay students this year is, quite frankly, unreasonable. If a union demanded player payment for the foreseeable future, their request could be the end of college sports and the NCAA.
The only way to work through these complicated externalities is to enable athletes to vote on their own fate. I cannot tell a hurdler in Texas what is right for her, just as much as she cannot tell a NFL prospect what he should want for his senior year. Let the athletes choose. It is their health, their opportunity and their lives.
Behold! Our intrepid hero, President Mark Emmert returns! Does he carry a decree enabling a democratic process to allow players to decide the fate of the season? Will he trust players to vote for what is best for them? Oh, that’s right. Athletes should vote for change in the election on Nov. 3. A basic right is denied to college athletes everywhere. Is the salt stinging yet?
MARK VITI is a first year in Franklin College. Contact him firstname.lastname@example.org.