NCAA president Mark Emmert drew a hard line against the prospect of paying college athletes Monday, telling a crowd at Marquette University that outside of a basic cost-of-living stipend he and other large schools support, the fundamental aspect of college athletics — its adherence to “amateurism” — would not change any time soon. Emmert’s stand came at a time when the NCAA is facing major antitrust lawsuits from former players seeking compensation. But the NCAA isn’t going to bend, because, Emmert said, the athletes are still “students who play sports.”
“One thing that sets the fundamental tone is there’s very few members and, virtually no university president, that thinks it’s a good idea to convert student-athletes into paid employees. Literally into professionals,” Emmert said, according to the Associated Press. “Then you have something very different from collegiate athletics. One of the guiding principles (of the NCAA) has been that this is about students who play sports.”
That’s an apt description of the lower NCAA divisions — the Football Championship Subdivision (formerly Division I-AA), Division II, and Division III — but it doesn’t really apply to Division I and the Bowl Championship Series schools in particular, at least when it comes to football and men’s basketball and maybe even the other sports too. Emmert and school presidents and other top officials at the NCAA may want to view top-tier NCAA athletics as simple extracurricular activities, but doing so ignores every reality about them — the mega-dollar television deals, the multimillion-dollar coaching salaries, the video game and jersey sales, and the outsized recruiting budgets and booster clubs and stadiums with luxury suites that, in certain instances, can make professional teams blush. This level of college athletics is a business, whether Emmert likes it or acknowledges it or chooses instead to ignore it.
If it’s a business, what else are the people who perform the labor but employees? The coaches and athletic directors and compliance officers and trainers are employees, because they perform a job without which the programs couldn’t exist. So, too, do the players, and yet they’re the only ones treated as if they are students first, athletes second, and people with rights never. Instead they’re handed a scholarship and told to accept that bargain without question, even though they had no part in crafting it and no recourse against it and even though so many of these schools don’t provide them with the education many “normal” students receive — particularly in top-tier football and basketball programs, athletes sometimes aren’t allowed to pursue the degrees they want or take the classes they prefer because doing so would take away from sports time.
There’s a legitimate argument that these athletes are dual-purpose actors on their college campuses — students when they’re in the classroom and employees when they’re at practice or on the field performing a service that is valuable to the school. That’s how graduate students who also teach at public universities are classified under the National Labor Relations Act, which allows them to organize and collectively bargain under state labor laws. The National Labor Relations Board has considered expanding that dual-purpose idea to grad students at private colleges and universities as well, and college professors like Michael LeRoy, from the University of Illinois, have studied the issue and come to the same conclusion for athletes. LeRoy argues that athletes operate in an “invisible labor market” that denies, as Emmert did, that they fit the basic definition of employees. LeRoy crafted a piecemeal reform that would allow athletes to organize and bargain over health issues and scholarship protections, though not over wages (LeRoy, as I wrote in January, thinks the piecemeal approach would change and advance the conversation around college athletics, leading to further changes down the line). Others favor an even stronger approach.
“There are good (legal) arguments that Division I football is basically a business, and that students are exploited as workers,” labor attorney Jeffrey Kessler, who has represented both the NFL and NBA players associations in labor disputes, told me in January. “And therefore schools should be free to compensate athletes in any manner that they want to, without NCAA restrictions.”
I’m not sure I’m as comfortable with the idea of free market college sports as others, as I have questions about what would happen to non-revenue sports, academic aid, and athletes who might not fit into such a system. I’m also not necessarily sure what my perfect version of college sports would look like. What is clear to me is that athletes should be recognized as employees and should have the right to organize and bargain for what they believe is fair compensation. The NLRB ruling that classified grad students as dual-purpose employees gave them that right in many states, and recognizing college athletes similarly and allowing them to have a seat at the table — instead of simply letting the NCAA and school presidents unilaterally determine what constitutes “fair” — would be a major step forward. Many opponents of paying college athletes argue that a college scholarship is fair compensation for their work. Maybe it is. But we’ll never know unless we give athletes the opportunity — and the right — to tell us if that’s the case.