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Unionizing College Athletes

March Madness: Brought to You by the Teamsters

by DAVID MACARAY

Nice to see the NLRB finally slap down the smug and dictatorial NCAA, and rule in favor of what are politely called “student-athletes.”  The NLRB has decided that scholarship players have the right to join or form a labor union.  Odd as that seems, Northwestern’s football players have made it clear that their beef wasn’t with the university, but with the NCAA, whose imperiousness and sanctimony is matched only by its hypocrisy.

The NLRB was persuaded that these players were, in fact, “employees” of the university, and as employees, were just as entitled to union representation as were the faculty, clerical workers and janitorial help.  Anyone still clinging to the belief that big-time college football is a pure and noble pursuit, one that transcends the scratch-and-claw ugliness of “commerce,” need only consider the University of Alabama.

The Crimson Tide football coach, Nick Saban, makes $7 million dollars a year.  Conversely, a University of Alabama literature professor makes what?  $100,000 a year?  We’re not so naive as to suggest that this is a “fair” comparison, that conflating football with the humanities curriculum makes sense.  Still, this is a university, is it not?  Football or no football, it’s still a place where one goes to be educated, is it not?  A place where 99% of the student body doesn’t participate in intercollegiate sports?

Not only is that wage discrepancy staggering, but when you make $7 million a year, we’re no longer talking about a college football coach, and we’re no longer talking about something as pedestrian as a bunch of “student-athletes” kicking around the old pigskin.  When you’re paid $7 million to run a football program—and when college football generates the billions of dollars in revenue it does—you’re no longer a coach.  You’re a CEO.

Which makes the NCAA’s stringent rules seem even more arbitrary and punitive.  With all this money being thrown around, with football coaches even at “minor” colleges making $500,000 a year, the NCAA still doesn’t allow scholarship athletes to receive a modest monthly stipend to pay for such practical things as laundry, cell phones, car maintenance, and walking-around money.

Even though these athletes are, undeniably, the most critical component in an enterprise that generates billions of dollars, the NCAA pretends that having their tuition paid for should be enough, and that asking for anything more than that makes them greedy bastards.  This NLRB ruling rectifies that by allowing athletes to engage in collective bargaining.  Does anyone doubt that if this were Nick Saban’s call, he would see to it that his players received a modest $200 a month in spending money?

Of course, this matter is far from settled.  Because it was a regional NLRB office that made the ruling, Northwestern University has already announced it will appeal the decision to the NLRB in Washington, D.C., and if the national NLRB fails to overturn it, they will almost certainly take it all the way to the Supreme Court.  They have no choice but to fight it.

This ruling (which applies only to private colleges and universities, and not public institutions) is simply too incendiary and potentially destabilizing not to fight.  It affects more than just Northwestern, and more than just football players.  It gives college basketball players the right to unionize as well.  Just think about that.  March Madness, brought to you by the International Brotherhood of Teamsters!  Is this a great country, or what?

David Macaray, an LA playwright and author (“It’s Never Been Easy:  Essays on Modern Labor,” 2nd edition), is a former union rep.  He can be reached at dmacaray@earthlink.net