Two fronts are currently being fought between the National Collegiate Athletic Association and its current and former players. In California, post-trial briefs were filed Wednesday for O’Bannon vs. NCAA, a class action lawsuit that argues players are entitled to profits from commercial uses of their images, most notably in video games.
In Illinois, Northwestern University football players were awarded the right to unionize as school employees in March. But six Republican congressmen and senators on Thursday requested a reversal of that ruling from a federal labor board.
Given the NCAA’s totalitarian refusal to acknowledge the differences between its players and non-athletes, the Wildcats’ solution of unionization makes sense. If being “student-athletes,” as the NCAA incessantly calls its workhorses, means making an organization billions of dollars but not being entitled to anything more than a college degree (if they’re lucky), why not try to get re-categorized as school employees?
But the Wildcats’ approach seeks compensation from individual schools instead of the NCAA itself, and therein lies a problem.
Texas, Wisconsin, Alabama and Michigan are all Division I universities which last year made more than $140 million in athletic revenue (Texas led with almost $166 million), according to data available on USAToday.com. But schools like Georgia, Michigan State and Kentucky didn’t even crack $100 million, and Delaware, San Diego State and New Mexico State didn’t even crack $40 million.
Twenty-nine Division I schools didn’t even make $10 million.
The smaller an individual school’s athletics revenue, the less it can compensate its players, further unbalancing the national recruiting landscape. While that’s great if you’re a Florida Gators or Oklahoma Sooners fan ($130 and $123 million in revenue last year, respectively), any chance of a New Mexico or Boise State team winning a national football or basketball championship goes out the window.
Elite players already drift towards programs with a history of success or those who’ve turned out multiple professional players. That shouldn’t change, as winning a championship or playing in the NBA or NFL are great reasons to choose one school over another.
Reasons like regional familiarity and a chance to star on a less-talented team, on the other hand, have always ensured that at least a few of the best go to schools like Memphis, Florida-International and Akron. But if the Southern Louisiana ($10.9 million) school suddenly found itself having to match a probably much larger deal from Louisiana State ($117 million), the Jaguars would have no choice but to watch their last hopes go play for the Tigers.
Unionization isn’t the answer, even if NCAA players resemble employees more than they do students. Students, after all, can take whatever classes they want, whereas athletes — as has been shown repeatedly, including in Sports Illustrated’s September article on Oklahoma State — usually can only take classes that don’t interfere with practices and team activities.
Students can work, while athletes can’t. Students can take full advantage of collegiate opportunities such as studying abroad, and as O’Bannon players attorney Bill Isaacson argued, athletes really can’t.
If the NCAA calls its workforce “student-athletes” to emphasize that education comes first, it’s lying. At best, these players are “athlete-students,” and more likely they’re just “athletes.”
So what’s a fair compromise for these athletes who don’t actually get to experience the colleges to which they earn scholarships?
The first step might be to streamline or eliminate many of the NCAA’s draconian rules about player payoffs. If a football player wants to sell an autographed jersey for a tattoo, let him. If a volleyball player can get $500 or $1,000 or even more for an autograph session, let her.
No one is hurt in those situations. And if the NCAA’s rules were simpler, schools wouldn’t have to pay compliance officers to ensure everything’s legal, and that money could go back to the students.
That first step would be easy to implement. But this second step, offering NCAA “stock options,” might take longer.
Many corporations offer their employees stock options. This makes the employees work harder to make the company money, because that in turn means the employees’ stock becomes more valuable.
The NCAA could create a similar system in which players receive shares of the association’s annual profits. Athletes in the money-making sports like football and basketball would get more, and those in non-revenue sports like swimming and wrestling would get fewer.
For each year a player stays in school, he or she would get more stock options. Graduation would mean a bonus, and stock options wouldn’t vest until the player leaves the school for good.
This would create added incentives for players to stay in school and earn their degrees instead of bolting as soon as they’re draft-eligible.
Some athletes would benefit more than others in this system. But like it or not, in every industry some people just have more profitable and marketable skills.
And given the lack of professional options available to swimmers, cross country runners and field hockey players, anyone who earns a college scholarship in a non-revenue sport and doesn’t get a degree is a fool.
Millionaire student-athletes might further divide them from the rest of the student body, so simply dividing up the NCAA’s television and video game revenue isn’t the solution. Neither is the Northwestern players’ union.
But the NCAA doesn’t just refuse to come up with a solution — it seems incapable of acknowledging there’s a problem.
Until the NCAA stops denying the situation and helps come up with a fair solution, athletes will have no option but bad solutions like the one at Northwestern.
Contact Matt Goisman at email@example.com.