The biggest star of the 2014 Men’s NCAA Basketball Tournament was not a person, but a phrase. When the event’s nearly 103 million television viewers tuned in for the first time, they were less likely to be greeted visually by any one announcer, coach or player than they were by the term “student-athlete.” The fourteen-letter camera hog was plastered all over coverage of each game, including on the elongated screen next to the court, where it was featured in a constantly rotating stream of advertisements for some of the tournament’s largest corporate sponsors.
Any why not? It is a phrase worthy of a hundred One Shining Moment montages, a romantic notion in tantalizingly hyphenated form. But what of the origin of this phrase? Did it materialize from the mind of James Naismith alongside the idea for the peach basket? Or perhaps it was a serendipitous typewriter error on the essay portion of Knut Rockne’s SAT?
Of course, the correct answer is neither of these. Rather, the term was concocted out of thin air sixty years ago by the NCAA in an (successful) effort to avoid paying worker’s compensation to the wife of a player who died from a head injury sustained playing college football.
This historical footnote serves as a perfect example of the absurdity of college sports and audacity of its bloated beneficiary, the National Collegiate Athletic Association. A term that is now the foundational marketing tool on the biggest stage of college athletics is merely another in a long line of creative NCAA solutions to continue the exploitation and deny the players a slice of the pie.
Deeming the question of whether to reconsider the status quo of collegiate athletics a “debate” is an insult to life’s real unsolvable quandaries. College athletes provide unpaid labor for a mammoth industry, often devoting nearly forty hours a week to their sport while risking serious permanent injury and operating on year-to-year scholarships that can be terminated at the school’s discretion. In many ways, it is like the American healthcare system: one of its kind, wildly unjust, and mired in stagnancy by those who benefit from the current reality. It is no wonder that Bill Maher found so many who agreed with this now famous tweet.
Of course, this is no new revelation. As the television contracts alone have grown into the tens of billions of dollars while many players remain unable to afford life’s basic necessities, the inequity has become even harder to hide and the drumbeat for change harder to silence. Just the last five years have seen crucial developments in changing public perception on the issue, highlighted by a lawsuit led by former UCLA star Ed O’ Bannon regarding video game likenesses and Taylor Branch’s scathingly brilliant piece in The Atlantic.
To counter these well-articulated and pressing criticisms of their system, the NCAA has done what those in the way of societal progress always do: stuck their fingers in their ears and screamed “lalalalala.” Well, not exactly. They have clung to a pair of stale talking points in rationalizing the way things are: the monetary value of a scholarship and the impracticality of determining individual athletic benefits.
The former assertion, championed most recently by NCAA President Mark Emmert ($1.7 million annual salary), hinges on the idea that the free tuition many athletes receive is more than adequate compensation for their sporting efforts. This argument states that these young people are primarily students pursuing a degree and that athletics are only a secondary focus of their lives on campus.
The latter point states that even if one believes in the moral validity of monetary compensation and better benefits for college athletes, there is no practical way to administer these funds. How would we figure out how much each athlete should be paid? Should the members of the football team receive the same treatment as the star-studded fencing squad? Even if we should reward these athletes, there is no equitable way to do so. Therefore, it is a pointless endeavor.
Both arguments have obvious flaws in logic. While free tuition and board may be enough to reflect the value of many athletes, what of the superstars who singlehandedly prop up marketing campaigns and sell out campus merchandise stores? What about those like Johnny Manziel, who by one estimate made more than $250 million for Texas A&M over two years? Clearly, a meal plan, stack of textbooks, and unlimited free entry to a few lecture halls is not a fair trade for his services.
Furthermore, the idea that we should not compensate athletes simply because it is too complicated to figure out the wage scale is the logical equivalent of not racially integrating a school district because it would be too hard to figure out the bus routes. Or not allowing women to vote because ordering new ballots would be inconvenient. Logistical challenges can be overcome given the proper strategy, much like injustice.
Despite these deficiencies, the arguments had mostly gotten the job done for the NCAA, allowing it to claim plausible deniability and stifle change for decades even as public perception shifted. It seemed we were headed for a world in which everyone thought the NCAA should change their ways but no one could do anything about it.
That is, until the introduction of former quarterback Kain Colter and the effort to unionize the Northwestern Football Team. Seeking primarily to address the issues of medical expenses, autonomy in transfer decisions, a post-graduation player trust fund, and better protocol for brain traumas, lawyers representing the players made the case to the National Labor Relations Board that they are, in fact, employees of the university with the right to organize and collectively bargain. Peter Ohr, regional director of the NLRB, concurred with this idea and ruled in favor of the players in a strongly worded twenty-two page decision released on March 26.
Nestled in the text of Ohr’s assertions are the perfect counterpoints for both of the two arguments the NCAA has come to rely upon. First, Ohr discusses the time commitment of participating in big-time college athletics, at one point producing a schedule from Northwestern training camp in which players were forced to allocate 16 hours a day exclusively to football. So much for the sanctity of academics and the overwhelming priority of schoolwork versus sports. These young people are already working like full-time employees, Ohr asserts, so they should be treated like it too.
As for the question of how to determine how much each player should be rewarded? Say hello to the idea of collective bargaining, the tried and true method for determining the wages and benefits of a myriad of workers for centuries. If it worked for the Samuel Gompers and Walter Reuther, it can work for Johnny Football and Shabazz Napier.
So what comes next? The decision has set up a vote on April 25 in which Northwestern’s players will decide whether to formally organize. Less than gracious in defeat, Northwestern itself seems intent on confirming the veracity of Ohr’s argument, immediately assuming its role as the anti-union employer as head Coach Pat Fitzgerald does his best Bob Corker impersonation.
No matter the result of the vote or the endless string of appeals Ohr’s ruling is sure to generate, the argument of collegiate athletic compensation has been permanently altered. No longer can the proprietors of college sports hide their bounty in plain view behind canned responses and loaded phrases like “student athlete”. Colter and his allies have formulated a new game plan, executed it to perfection, and the once invincible NCAA bully may get sacked.