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Why Not End College Athletics Altogether?

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Posted on Feb 6, 2014

By Mark Heisler

  Northwestern University quarterback Kain Colter listens as United Steelworkers union President Leo Gerard speaks during a news conference in Chicago. Calling the NCAA a “dictatorship,” a group of Northwestern football players announced they are seeking to form the first labor union for college athletes—one they hope will eventually represent players nationwide. (AP Photo/Paul Beaty)

As quarterback Johnny Manziel said, “Don’t mourn, organize.”

Oh, wait, that was Joe Hill before his execution in 1915 when union organizing could mean putting your life on the line.

Of course, on the Joe Hill standard, none of us had better utter a peep about anything. That was then. This is now, when the report that college athletes are trying to unionize is merely the latest chapter in an ongoing discussion.

In fact, Northwestern University quarterback Kain Colter, who helped form the College Athletes Players Association that is asking for certification from the National Labor Relations Board, represents a hard-pressed, if not oppressed, minority toiling at the mercy of taskmaster coaches who take up five hours of their day on practices, film sessions, et al., and can jerk their scholarships away on a whim.

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Nevertheless, Colter’s announcement of the petition to seek union representation does not mean what it was taken to mean—an attempt to get college athletes paid, which players aren’t seeking ... at the moment.

In many minds, the ideas are twins. ESPN ran a poll with its report, asking the audience what it thought of college athletes organizing, which was in the story, and seeking payment, which wasn’t.

In fact, the long, ongoing discussion has been about paying college athletes, not the workplace conditions which, to date, are all that Colter has cited. The National College Players Association, with which Colter has been working, lists 11 demands on its website. Chief among them is “Minimize college athletes’ brain trauma risks.”

The pay-the-athletes debate has gone on for so long, there’s growing support on levels as lofty as the article in The Atlantic by historian and author Taylor Branch, headlined “The Shame of College Sports.”

To be sure, college athletics are shot through with shame, a wildly successful for-profit endeavor covered by a too-small fig leaf of amateur regulations.

Nevertheless, it’s naive to think that giving the athletes a tiny percentage of the proceeds will clean up so corrupt a system.

Advocates of paying the athletes are motivated by the incessant “scandals,” including the penny-ante ones like buying someone an illegal meal, which is the way schools like to portray the problem.

No one likes to think of the real scandals. Fortunately, they don’t have to because they’re all but impossible to uncover without subpoena power (a problem for the NCAA’s toothless enforcement office as well as the press).

You know, when University of Kentucky assistant coach Dwane Casey shipped $1,000 to basketball player Chris Mills’ father, and the parents of USC’s Reggie Bush got a rent-free home?

Those were reported because an Emery Air Freight envelope addressed to Mills’ father split open, and an agent who had been nosed out of representing Bush blew the whistle. If you’re around college athletics, all you hear are stories like that, which rarely get out.

(Actually, there were repercussions when the Emery envelope split, revealing $1,000 in $20 bills. Casey sued Emery, which settled.)

A $2,000 monthly stipend, as once proposed by the NCAA, would hardly stop six-figure payoffs to star athletes whose recruitment means millions in direct revenue, not to mention donations, amid stories of briefcases filled with cash and $180,000 signing bonuses (what the father of Auburn University quarterback Cam Newton allegedly sought through a middleman).

Personally, I don’t think paying the athletes would even clean up the penny-ante abuses, given the alumni’s urge to fawn over them.

Oh, and it’s philosophically indefensible if they don’t divide the proceeds among athletes in non-revenue as well as revenue-generating sports, not to mention everyone else who contributes time and effort to represent the school like the marching band and the cheerleaders. The College Athletes Players Association is at the other extreme, open only to Division I football and basketball players.

The association is pressing for better workplace conditions—an issue wherever football is played, suggested by all the contortions the NFL is now putting itself through after years of being sued by former players—and seeking to have scholarships extended to cover the full cost of attendance.


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