College sports: Fish or cut bait with student athletes

A battle over unionization will raise important, fundamental questions about the nature of collegiate athletics.
Husky Stadium's new jumbotron sports 281 trillion colors, while leaving the picturesque Lake Washington and Mt. Rainier views unobstructed

Husky Stadium's new jumbotron sports 281 trillion colors, while leaving the picturesque Lake Washington and Mt. Rainier views unobstructed Photo: GoHuskies.com

"As far as I am concerned, all of college football should go to an Ivy League model in which ordinary students compete, recruiting madness is eliminated, and we coaches can get free of a degraded culture."  Chuck Mather, Kansas University football coach, 1956.

A National Labor Relations Board regional director shook up college athletics last week by ruling that Northwestern University football players were employees of the university and eligible to form a college athletes union. The ruling followed  an initiative by Northwestern players, led by their former quarterback. Their effort was backed by the United Steelworkers of America.

The ruling would apply only to student athletes at private universities such as Northwestern, Stanford, Duke, Rice, Vanderbilt and the University of Southern California. But, if the unionization effort proves successful, there is little doubt that it would spread to public institutions such as the University of Washington.

The ruling came as a surprise but should not have. The NLRB notoriously tilts toward the union side during Democratic administrations and to a management side under Republicans. Northwestern's president said the university would appeal the regional ruling to the full NLRB in Washington, D.C. as well as pursue other legal channels. He also said that, as a last resort, the university would give up varsity football.

It will be many months, maybe several years, before this issue is resolved. But it raises once more the whole role of varsity sports in our colleges and universities and where they are and should be headed.

The current argument in a nutshell: The petitioning players, and many in the sports world who agree with them, argue that scholarship football and basketball players, in particular, are forced to devote at least as many hours to their sports as to actual study — in fact are employees rather than students — and should form a union which would advocate for their compensation, health care and other benefits just as unionized employees bargain with other employers.

The union advocates point, in particular, to TV, promotional and other income that flows to the university and National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) from the players' efforts and in which the athletes do not share. The advocates also cite restrictions on the players' behavior and lifestyle, which are imposed without their explicit consent.

Opponents of this view agree that major-college football (and, in some cases, basketball) revenues have become huge. But, they argue, these revenues also pay for all the other sports activities at the institutions, including women's sports and other sports such as track and field, golf, tennis, crew, baseball, wrestling, swimming, lacrosse, soccer, and volleyball.  Should these athletes also be paid?  Should they paid but at rates below those of football and basketball players?  If so, how would this affect the status of women's sports under Title IX?

Critics also respond that the college-football athletes receive hundreds of thousands of dollars, over a four-year period, in tuition and fees, housing, academic support services, and other benefits which ordinary students must pay for on their own. They also get college educations at institutions to which many of them would not be admitted were it not for their athletic skills.

The proper place of sports at colleges and universities has been an almost ceaseless topic of conversation since the early 20th century.   The University of Chicago was a founding member of the Big Ten conference and its football coach, Amos Alonzo Stagg, the most renowned coach in the country.  Yet, in 1939, the University of Chicago gave up varsity football (and later withdrew altogether from the Big Ten).  It did so because its president and trustees believed that football was overshadowing the university's principal education mission.  The University of Chicago would remain a preeminent institution, with or without football.  A few years ago the school reinstated football as a club sport and, then, upgraded it to small-college competition against Midwestern and Western opponents.  The Chicago Maroons played Pacific University in Forest Grove, OR this past season.  Other schools, such as Western Washington University, have discontinued varsity football because its revenues could not pay for it.


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Comments:

Posted Thu, Apr 3, 12:21 p.m. Inappropriate

"They also get college educations at institutions to which many of them would not be admitted were it not for their athletic skills."

This is a questionable assertion at best. As I understand it, the NLRB decision was based in part on an examination of how the young men in question spent their time -- it was determined that the majority of their time in a given week was spent in football activity. Their training (including individual work as well as team practice time) took upwards of 60 hours/week during the regular season, slightly less than that in the off-season. If they were actually working in the regular world, they would be putting in overtime hours for a big chunk of the year. When are they supposed to be "students?"

sandik

Posted Thu, Apr 3, 1:32 p.m. Inappropriate

I wonder what kinds of criteria Ted Van Dyk has in mind if he's not yet sure whether the money sports, football in particular, have compromised the basic academic mission of the university.

As the previous commenter noted, the NLRB decision was based in good part on how much time the student athletes spent practicing and studying. Surveys of all sudents show that grades start to drop when students work more than 15 hours a week--isn't 60 hours of practice a week compromising the academic mission?

And, as the article notes, many of these students would never get into college if they weren't athletes. But we recruit them with much more money and energy than is spent on academic standouts, then give them just enough academic help to keep them eligible. Oh, yes, then we advise them on which courses to take. Compromising the mission?

And frankly it seems to me deeply corrupting when the football coach is the highest paid member of a university community. A coach's salary may well be greater than the combined salaries of some academic departments. Doesn't this compromise the academic mission of the school? Of course, it's justified because because the coaches bring in the money--on the backs of their student athletes, of course, who are paid only a deeply compromised education that they barely have time for.

And we should also ask why we sponsor a sport that can lead to long-term brain damage. Repeated blows to the head don't need to cause concussions to cause CTE, which has wrecked the lives of a number of high-profile former NFL players and many others. Why bring students to campus to educate their minds and jeopardize their brains? Frankly, I don't think we would if it didn't pay (someone)so well. (Just not the players.)

On another note, Van Dyk shouldn't worry that student athletes are developing a mercenary mindset. They follow their coaches, who aren't members of an academic community but careerists looking to jump to the next level. Besides, the mercenary mindset is pretty widespread through the whole student body--students go to school to get better jobs and make more money.

cato

Posted Fri, Apr 4, 6:13 a.m. Inappropriate

I did not see 60 hours/week mentioned in the article.
That number seems like a great exaggeration.

I knew many student varsity athletes, including football players at the mid-western university I attended with a prestigious program (they won the National Championship while I attended).
At most they spent 4-6 hours a day in 'practice', much of this time spent reviewing videotapes, etc. Even assuming a ten hour day on 'gameday' that is still only 40 hours a week.
This is still a high number, but hardly 1-1/2 full time jobs.

As someone who worked ~20 hours/week in school (I guess my grades suffered), I was excited to have the Saturday game-day experience as a student. As anyone who has watched the NCAA basketball tournament would understand, college sports have the ability to unite the fans (student body) in a way that professional sports could never achieve. The great college football games I've been to were far greater experiences than any Seahawks game.

I contend that sports can be part of a school's mission to create a well-rounded individual, including building bonds amongst students. This does not have to be football and I agree with many of cato's comments regarding the issues with that particular sport.

jeffro

Posted Mon, Apr 7, 6 p.m. Inappropriate

Here's what the NLRB ryling said as reported in (and quoted from)the New York Times:

“The players spend 50 to 60 hours per week on their football duties during a one-month training camp prior to the start of the academic year and an additional 40 to 50 hours per week on those duties during the three- or four-month football season,” the ruling said. “Not only is this more hours than many undisputed full-time employees work at their jobs, it is also many more hours than the players spend on their studies.”

My 60 hours was the high end for training camp, not for the academic year--my bad.

But the main issue, as the decision pointed out, is that even at 40-50 hours, it's more time than the football players spend on their studies.

I like college football as well, and much more than NFL football. In a minute or two I'm going to turn on UConn v. Kentucky. But as much as I like college sports, I also find the money sports, football in particular, deeply exploitative. They need to find a way to be fair to the players. But I'm not counting on Mark Emmert to lead the way.

cato

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