College sports: Fish or cut bait with student athletes

A battle over unionization will raise important, fundamental questions about the nature of collegiate athletics.
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A battle over unionization will raise important, fundamental questions about the nature of collegiate athletics.

"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.

Scandals in recruiting and under-the-table financial payments got prime attention in the late 1940s and 1950s. It was said of Hugh McElhenny, the great University of Washington running back in the early 1950s, that he was "the first National Football League player to take a pay cut after leaving college." McElhenny, a working-class kid from southern California, drove a shiny red convertible from his first day on campus and wore a camel's-hair topcoat. There were similar stories about other big-name college players. The University of Southern California's ferocious middle linebacker at the time (from nearby New London, Connecticut) was one Pat Cannamela, in whom the USC admissions office clearly saw promise unreflected in his test scores and GPA. Gene Conley, a Washington State basketball and baseball star who later played in both major-league baseball and the National Basketball Association, gained unintentional fame before college by being kidnapped and held against his will in a hotel room by rival-college recruiters before he could escape and register at Pullman.

These and other college-sports issues caused me as a Columbia graduate student in 1956 to undertake a research project on college football in particular. As part of my project, I sent a three-page questionnaire to every major-college football coach in America. I expected to get only a handful of mostly careless responses. To my surprise, the response rate was about 90 percent.

The coaches used my survey as a place to vent. Several coaches wrote several-page letters. They pursued a common theme: They hated the system in which they worked and yearned for simpler circumstances in which they could coach kids who played for love of the game.

One such coach, Chuck Mather of Kansas University (see comment above), submitted a thoughtful magazine-length essay, which any publication would have been pleased to publish. I thought: Why would these coaches be so candid, and take such risks, in responding to a graduate student's form letter? The answer, I concluded, was that it was probably the first chance they'd had to uninhibitedly express themselves on the subject.

My research paper was never published, of course, and remains somewhere deep in Columbia archives.  I suspect, though, that the same questionnaire, sent to today's major-college coaches, might elicit the same responses.

Inside all but the most money- and fame-seeking coaches there probably still lies a wish to live in a world in which athletes play for love of their game and coaches coach accordingly. Instead they find themselves competing avidly for tweeting high-school recruits who believe themselves to be celebrities and future NFL and NBA stars. Some of those recruits will change their commitments two and three times before the official college-football or basketball signing day. They must cope with a few players on their rosters who turn out to be thugs or selfishly unmanageable. They must romance prospective big donors to their programs and give up precious time with their families — the same kind of syndrome, it occurs to me, that afflicts big-time politicians. Just as politicians, the coaches must make regular media appearances in which they answer repetitive uninformed questions with feigned earnestness.

The new Husky football coach, Chris Petersen, unlike predecessors Rick Neuheisel and Steve Sarkisian, appears to be exactly the kind of coach who would prefer to forego every role but coaching his kids on the field, He is paid well for it, as are his colleagues in his profession. His Husky spring practice resumed Tuesday with questions about the status of two suspended Husky stars who allegedly celebrated the Seahawks' Super Bowl victory by disrupting a street celebration and creating an incident in which a Seahawks fan was beaten. His basketball counterpart, Lorenzo Romar, is on the hot seat after two disappointing seasons, lost recruiting battles, and prospective transfer of current players elsewhere. Yet everyone will agree that he is honorable, a good coach, and an exemplary representative of the university.

This brings us to the quest for the Almighty Dollar and what it has done to college sports. Good recruits, it is said, will only come to campuses with first-class stadiums, arenas, and training facilities and, a recent trend, eye-pleasing uniforms. Without these recruits, teams will lose and stadiums and arenas will remain unfilled. Dollars will not flow and all athletic-department activities, including non-revenue and women's sports, will need to be curtailed.

How many big-time football and basketball programs have high graduation rates (the UW's is comparatively good)? How many of the players see themselves primarily as students or as employees?

Here's a guess and a prediction: More players than not still see themselves as student-athletes and not as mercenaries on their way to professional sports careers. More are grateful for their scholarships than feel themselves entitled to them. Yet the flow appears to be going toward the employee/mercenary mindset in high-profile programs. (A few years ago the late Phil Henderson, a Chicago schoolboy star, explained his commitment to the Duke basketball program this way: "I'm using them; they're using me.")

The Northwestern football players are no doubt sincere and feel themselves exploited. Thus their attempt to unionize. I think they'll fail, however, to convince a majority of their college-athlete colleagues at other schools and will meet a wall of resistance from the "workplaces" they seek to unionize. They're also likely to lose eventually in court. The individuals now leading the effort will be long gone from college by the time the issue is resolved.

But they've once again raised a good question: What are college sports for and what should be their governing principles? I love college sports dearly and, especially, my Huskies. But put me down as endorsing the University of Chicago precedent if sports begin to compromise the basic academic mission. If the sports programs prove to be ultimately corrupting, colleges should offer strong club-sports programs and leave it at that. If young athletes want to be professional sports employees, let them try it straight out of high school.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Ted Van Dyk

Ted Van Dyk

Ted Van Dyk has been active in national policy and politics since 1961, serving in the White House and State Department and as policy director of several Democratic presidential campaigns. He is author of Heroes, Hacks and Fools and numerous essays in national publications. You can reach him in care of