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The Real March Madness: Unions, Money and Power in College Athletics (Forbes.com) March 28, 2014

Posted by daviddavenport in Op/Eds.

The timing is deliciously ironic. At the very moment college athletes are running up and down basketball courts in March Madness, earning over a billion dollars for TV networks, the NCAA, colleges and athletic conferences, a hearing officer of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ruled that Northwestern football players are university employees, enabling them to unionize. This ruling, doubtless only the first step in a lengthy process, has sent shock waves through the NCAA and the academic world.

The legal argument was whether student-athletes are, in reality, employees of the University within the meaning of the law. The definition of an employee, established by the NLRB, is a person who performs services for another under a contract of hire, subject to the other’s control or right of control, and in return for payment. After examining the extensive payments to students and the very detailed control of the athletic department and football coaches over the student-athletes’ conduct for 40-60 hours a week, the hearing officer concluded that scholarship athletes were not “primarily students” who “spend only a limited number of hours performing their athletic duties,” but rather employees. So-called “scholarships” for athletes are not, says the hearing officer, truly grants in aid, but rather payments for services, although walk-on players are considered student-athletes in the traditional sense.

Is this a good development for the academic world? Of course not. Scholarship student-athletes are no longer purely students any more. They may vote to unionize, and the unions, in turn, will become their representatives in bargaining over working conditions, salary and the like. It swings the pendulum too far, completely changing the nature of the university and student-athlete relationship, rather than taking up the many issues that should be addressed on a case-by-case basis. Admissions, financial aid, student conduct and all sorts of other departments of the university may now find their policies subject to union negotiation.   As a former university president, and before that general counsel, it’s crazy.

But the reality is that it will take a crazy swing of the pendulum like this to begin to address the power-mad and money-grubbing ways of the NCAA.  We all know how dominant major revenue sports have become on college campuses, with coaches paid millions of dollars (while professors make thousands), special dorms and apartments constructed for student-athletes and so on. Less visible, perhaps, is that the so-called oversight body for all of this, the NCAA, has itself become a cash cow, producing over $70 million in excess revenues in 2012 (the last year for which figures are available). The power-happy NCAA has a nearly 500-page rulebook, which results in micromanagement of coaches and athletes, excessive limitations on student-athletes’ lives and budgets (they can’t even have jobs or accept dinners regular students can), and power imbalances between large and small schools.

Ultimately there was going to be some pushback to this kind of unchecked growth in the power and money of the NCAA and college athletics. The nation’s founders recognized that unchecked power results in abuse and so they built in checks and balances as well as balances of power in our Constitution. Unfortunately the NCAA, along with university leaders, has not been sufficiently concerned about that, and the money and power grew exponentially, on the backs of student-athletes. What do the Northwestern players say they want out of this? Reformed brain trauma study/prevention, a student opportunity fund (for emergencies, etc.), perhaps an incentive for players to graduate on time. Maybe a little more freedom and control over their college lives and budgets. All things the NCAA could have addressed on its own, but until forced to, would not.

Like ballot propositions, this kind of decision makes a better political statement than it does actual policy. But sometimes that’s where reform has to begin, by someone with a grievance finding just enough of a leverage point to stand up and speak truth to power. A few Northwestern football players and an NLRB hearing officer have done just that. Let the Madness begin.

Link to Forbes.com: http://www.forbes.com/sites/daviddavenport/2014/03/28/the-real-march-madness-unions-money-and-power-in-college-athletics/

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