Editorial: NCAA must do more for its athletes
The history of the American labor movement is the story of exploited workers. It is now time for the chapter on the Division I college athletics to be written.
The NCAA has made an enormous amount of money off the toil of its student athletes, many of whom sacrifice academics and their long-term health to fulfill their scholarship obligations. It is also true that many of them would never have had a chance at a college education if not for an athletic scholarship. But awareness is growing among college athletes that while they’re thankful for the education, they deserve more.
In March, a landmark ruling by the National Labor Relations Board cleared the way for Northwestern University’s football team to unionize. On Friday, the players exercised their newfound right and voted on whether to bargain collectively.
Although the results of that vote won’t be made public until the board’s appeals process is complete, the very fact that votes were cast should be enough to spur the NCAA to action.
Of course, whenever the word “billions” is attached to revenue, you can be certain the fight will be long and bloody.
Early last month, NCAA President Mark Emmert said: “To be perfectly frank, the notion of using a union employee model to address the challenges that do exist in intercollegiate athletics is something that strikes most people as a grossly inappropriate solution to the problems. It would blow up everything about the collegiate model of athletics.”
“Grossly inappropriate” is also a good way to describe the 40 to 50 hours a week Division I athletes dedicate to their teams, or the fact that 85 percent of them live $3,000 to $5,000 below the poverty line despite the NCAA’s $16 billion in television contracts.
To Concord’s Luke Bonner and other board members of the College Athletes Players Association, the problem isn’t merely about money. It’s about having a voice.
“We’re saying as an employee, as recognized by the (National Collegiate Players Association) currently, the athletes deserve a say in the working conditions,” Bonner said.
In terms of working conditions, Division I athletics may not resemble Upton Sinclair’s meatpacking district in The Jungle, but in sports such as basketball and football, there is a significant gap between the services provided and the benefits received, even when you factor in the cost of an education.
The bottom line is that Division I athletes who go on to sign lucrative professional contracts shouldn’t be the only ones who are allowed to use college sports to build a future.
That is why the NCAA should draft a sensible policy, not face-saving PR reforms, for its student athletes. It should address health care, stipends, a work week that leaves ample time for academics, the right of athletes to market themselves and some form of profit-sharing.
The NCAA needs to understand that nothing is gained by remaining on defense.
Officials have the opportunity to begin a good-faith dialogue that includes a lot of listening.
To allow the outcome of lawsuits to dictate change is to deny any institutional responsibility to the young male and female athletes who give so much to the nation’s colleges and universities – and their fans.