Thursday, March 27, 2014

Is the Jig Up for the NCAA?

Yesterday, a regional director of the National Labor Relations Board ruled that the football players at Northwestern University are employees of the University and entitled to unionize and bargain with the University about their work conditions. As William Rhoden of the New York Times says, "The jig is up."

I have been teaching a freshman seminar about the curious notion of athletic amateurism. It's an un-American concept, in its origins and in its implications; there are things that seem sketchy when you get money for doing them, donating a kidney for example, but generally speaking Americans don't have any trouble with payments and prizes. Amateurism is actually a British concept, rooted in the social class separation between gentlemen and laborers. But as a condition on athletics it does not survive in England, or in the Olympic movement which once celebrated it -- only in American colleges.

Whatever its origins, amateurism has been becoming increasingly unsustainable as a collective fiction as the sums of money in college sports have exploded. Contrary to common belief, few schools actually make a profit on their athletic programs, because expenses have exploded too. But the sums made by the profitable programs have tempted many others to try.

To maximize their competitive strength, on which their revenues depend, the schools offering athletic scholarships have agreed to screw their athletes in various ways. For example, they offer only one-year athletic scholarships, so they don't have to bear the cost for four years if someone either chooses not to play or becomes physically unable to play -- or just turns out not to be as good as a someone admitted later on. If I recall correctly, the scholarship schools have collectively agreed not to allow any school to offer multiple-year scholarships, as that, however good for the student, would create too much of a competitive advantage for the schools that were able to absorb the incremental cost.

The Ivy League, which offers no athletic scholarships, is free from that form of abuse. Having no athletic scholarships also keeps the coaches on better behavior, since dissatisfied players can walk away from their teams without any financial penalty. It happens a lot, often not out of dissatisfaction but just because other opportunities become more interesting. One Harvard CS entrepreneur I have taught was a recruited athlete and never played a single game, having quit the team during the first week of practice.

The NLRB regional director has concluded, reasonably enough, that players whose continued financial support is dependent on athletic performance are employees first and students second.

This will be litigated, of course; the NCAA, which can afford very good lawyers, is not going to come crashing down on the say-so of one regional labor director. But I do think the jig is up. Between the Ed O'Bannon case, and some persistent, high-profile journalism that is laying bare the NCAA's hypocrisy, some things are going to have to change.

In fact, the remarkable thing to me is that the NCAA, which has been so successful in turning football and men's basketball into a national entertainment empire, could not have seen this coming and made some limited changes to their most ethically indefensible policies. They must have calculated that there was no reason to increase their costs until they were forced to. So much for the student-athlete fiction. And now they may not get away with offering decent protections against the financial consequences of injuries and whatnot; the big time schools may have to pay their athletes, which could get very very complicated -- since whatever other ripples that step might have, it could surely not happen without paying women athletes as well as men.


  1. The jig may not be up. As I understand it, the NLRB governs only private employers, so the ruling will apply only to private colleges and universities, not public ones. It's the big public universities where big money athletics is most prevalent. Private colleges and universities could all go to club sports.

    If you get your scholarship when you play, and lose it if you don't play, that does sound a lot like an employee. If you get your scholarship whether or not you play, that doesn't sound so much like an employee.

    What about the student with an academic scholarship who has to maintain a certain grade average to keep it? Is the student an employee being paid to study? We like to think paying student athletes is different than paying student teaching fellows or allowing them to unionize.

    1. Seems to me you are exactly right about the distinction in your second para, which is why I am kind of amazed that the NCAA didn't figure that out before various legal and quasi-legal authorities started making the same point.

      The difference with an academic scholarship is that the institution is not making money off the scholar in anything like the way it is making money off the athlete. You can pay students to do all kinds of things -- including extracurriculars. No reason a university could not pay a cellist who performed at some fancy dinner, for example. It's only the athletes who, under current rules, can't be paid -- and they are the only ones generating enough revenues to make realistic the concept of them as a labor force with bargaining power.

      But you remind me of a funny story a funny fact that an official at another university once told me. The president had gone on a campaign to fight grade inflation -- because the green eyeshade types had run the numbers on how much more every tenth of a point of mean GPA was costing him in merit scholarship money!

  2. I've heard two things about college sports that seem contradictory
    1) Colleges make lots of money from so called student athletes who are underpaid and treated badly.
    2) Most colleges lose money on college sports.

    SO- how to resolve that contradiction?

    1. 1) is true depending on your definition of "make". Revenues are large and expenses are larger means they lose money, except at a handful of places.