There is a specter haunting college sports… The specter of union-ism!
Hurry! Everyone reach for your frowny face and OMG! emoticons. Whether you’re a churn & burn free-marketeer consumer of college sports or a concierge of the collective, rumbles out of Chicago that the National Labor Relations Board granted the Northwestern University football team permission to unionize probably registered on your radar.
Although the Baker’s Union temporarily destroyed some of America’s favorite junk-food icons, such as the Hostess Twinkie, the Ding Dong and the Ho Ho, it is unlikely that unrestricted unionization will upend the world of college sports. Capitalists among us can therefore rest our weary heads. But the time has come to compensate our “college athletes” rather than allow the NCAA to perpetuate the charade that it exists to protect “student athletes”.
A “student athlete” attends university primarily to acquire the best possible education, while “college athletes” attend largely to further their athletic careers. Back when a college education was actually affordable, such a distinction wasn’t as necessary as it is today. Now that the price of a 4-year education consistently correlates, on the cheap end, with the price of a 4-door BMW 5-Series, or a 4-bedroom middle class home in the Chicago suburbs, on the steep end, distinctions are necessary.
It is legitimate to question if unionizing college sports might lead to the type of central planning that could bloat an agile organization like the NCAA. For an organization that sprang into existence during the first Roosevelt administration over 100 years ago, as a means of protecting athletes from injury during football practices, the NCAA now governs nearly every aspect of every college sport. It’s more bloated than Melissa McCarthy in an undersized set of Spanx on Venice Beach, yet it’s still as nimble as Catwoman escaping the clutches of Bruce Wayne or Batman.
Furthermore, the NCAA has overcome, adapted or outgrown any challenges to its revenue stream and power structure, and with its unchecked quasi-monopoly intact. In the 1940′s, for example, the organization, in conjunction with its affiliate schools, expressed concern that televising games might drastically reduce gate attendance. While such concerns may have been warranted at the time, the NCAA continued to bloat right through them.
In practical terms only a tiny percentage of college athletes ever capitalize on their sporting talents. The overwhelming majority either run out of talent or suffer career-ending injuries, and some are even dismissed for honor code violations or criminal activity. The NCAA and their member institutions effectively utilize their talent pool of college athletes for maximum profitability under a cost structure that fails to reward the most important component that justifies it’s own existence: Performance Labor.
A business model that can acquire, rely on, and legally avoid compensation for labor would be labeled “slavery” in any civilized society.
Compensating college athletes poses a challenge because of legitimate differences in Divisional structures, such as the PAC-12 vs the WAC. Television revenues, alumni contributions and gate receipts don’t flow evenly across the collegiate spectrum, and any mechanism to balance the differential would prove unworkable.
Degree of difficulty, however, isn’t an excuse for inaction.
Northwestern University’s permission from the NLRB to organize might bring the NCAA to the table. If the organization chooses to embrace the inevitable conclusion that performance labor must receive compensation, then it will maintain its pivotal role as a governing body for years to come.
If not, an eventual nationwide NCAA Players Association will ensure its demise just like the Baker’s Association managed to test the “Twinkie-in-landfill” theory. As any Hostess fan knows, the Twinkie was resurrected recently after a painful restructure.
It is currently unknown how long an organization of such size and sophistication like the NCAA can survive in a garbage dump.
They shouldn’t embark on the experience of finding out, however.
(This article originally appeared at “Last Word on Sports”, and can be viewed here