College athletes aren’t demanding pay; they’re demanding a voice; the NCAA would be wise to give them one

Correction: A previous version of this column incorrectly reported that the decision declaring Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally as free agents was 28 years ago. The ruling by arbitrator Peter Seitz took place on Dec. 23, 1975 — more than 38 years ago. This version has been corrected.


Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter (2) wears APU for "All Players United" on wrist tape as he scores a touchdown during an NCAA college football game against Maine in Evanston, Ill. (Nam Y. Huh/ASSOCIATED PRESS)
John Feinstein
March 31

More than 38 years ago, when an arbitrator declared Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally free agents, baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn declared free agency would “destroy” the sport’s competitive balance. At last look, baseball appears to be doing quite well in just about every possible way.

That’s only one reason why people should laugh at the hyperbole coming out of NCAA headquarters in the wake of last week’s ruling by a National Labor Relations Board regional director that Northwestern’s football players should be allowed to unionize.

John Feinstein is a sports columnist for The Washington Post and also provides commentary for the Golf Channel and National Public Radio. View Archive

On “Face the Nation” on Sunday, NCAA President Mark Emmert issued stern warnings about how disastrous it would be for all of college sports if the case continues to go forward. Actually, it would be disastrous for only one side: management — as in Emmert and the universities who benefit from the one-sided relationship that exists between athletic departments and the athletes who make them so wealthy.

Emmert threw out all the scary red flags he could think of: What if players were taxed on the value of their scholarships? If a player drops a pass, can he get fired or traded? How can NCAA schools possibly fund nonrevenue sports if they aren’t allowed to sock away every single dollar they make from their multibillion dollar TV contracts, ticket sales, booster contributions and licensing?

To hear Emmert tell it, the whole house could come tumbling down if the “student-athletes” were treated like anything more than serfs.

Let’s be clear: At no point has anyone involved in the Northwestern case on the players’ side suggested they be paid. Unions are formed when management refuses to discuss any change in working conditions and employees’ only recourse is to band together and try to force change.

For years, the NCAA has refused to consider any real changes to its treatment of athletes in revenue sports. It is spending millions of dollars to fight a lawsuit that would allow athletes to share in any licensing revenue from video games in which their likenesses are used. The NCAA essentially behaves as a 2-year-old: Everything, every dollar, is “mine.”

Emmert has been talking for two years about his desire to see the full cost of a scholarship funded. The commissioners of the five major conferences have pushed repeatedly for this small improvement. It remains “under discussion.” Left alone, the NCAA still will be discussing this issue in 2037.

Emmert’s most ludicrous comment Sunday regarded potential risks to underperforming athletes. Fired or traded? That already happens. An NCAA scholarship is guaranteed for only one year. Athletes who don’t meet the expectations they held as recruits regularly are told they should find another school “where you can play.” If such athletes don’t want to leave, the coach can simply not renew their scholarships.

The coach can replace the athlete right away. But the athlete, even if forced out, has to miss a season unless he can prove some kind of “hardship.”

That’s fair?

That’s why all this talk about the “value of a scholarship” is ludicrous. For revenue sport athletes, the scholarship exists for one reason: because the school believes the athlete will help its football or basketball team win more games and, thus, make more money. There’s nothing magnanimous about the scholarship; it’s a business deal.

Students are shocked after university President Dr. Wallace D. Loh announced Monday that the Terrapins will join the Big Ten in 2014. After nearly 60 years, Maryland will leave the Atlantic Coast Conference , a conference it helped establish. (Gabe Silverman/The Washington Post)

Further nonsense: The union movement will jeopardize the future of the poor nonrevenue sport athletes. Nonrevenue athletes understand their scholarships are paid for, in most cases, by profits generated by football and men’s basketball. They have no expectation of further compensation because their sports generate no revenue.

Furthermore, athletic departments should not be counting on a revenue stream that fluctuates as significantly as licensing revenue to cover annual fixed costs such as nonrevenue scholarships anyway. Any athletic director who builds a budget counting on licensing money should be fired.

As for possibly giving football and basketball athletes a share of larger revenue pots from TV rights or ticket sales, the answer is to tie it to a trust fund rather than a paycheck. Agree on a percentage due to athletes and place it in a trust. When an athlete graduates, he collects his share. Those who leave school early for an NBA or NFL paycheck presumably won’t need it. If their pro careers don’t pan out, they can come back to school to pursue their degrees — on scholarship.

All change frightens people. Those opposed to it resort to scare tactics and what-ifs. Of course, none of this is simple. Nor is it insurmountable once the decision-makers care enough to figure it out.

The Northwestern players and all the other athletes around the country who are following this case closely aren’t demanding money; they’re demanding a voice. They’re saying the system is unfair — and has been for years. Everything is skewed toward management, and every time someone challenges the system, the answer is, “But we pay for your education.”

It’s the oldest management argument in the book: You’re lucky to have a job. Only when the workforce understands that management can’t function without the labor it provides do things change. College athletes are slowly beginning to understand this.

Imagine what might happen if the players at Kentucky, Wisconsin, Florida and Connecticut got together this week and said, “Unless we receive a guarantee right now that all scholarships will be guaranteed for four years, we aren’t playing Saturday.”

Do you think CBS and TBS would tell Emmert and his flunkies to “do what you have to do to get those people to show up for work on Saturday”?

Of course they would.

This isn’t about tearing down college sports or taking away scholarships or denying anyone an education. This is about fairness. Giving someone a scholarship — so you can profit — is no excuse for creating a system that skews in one direction 100 percent of the time.

The NCAA should stop whining about how much this might cost, stop spending millions on legal fees, stop trying to scare people and sit down with the players and negotiate.

That would be the right thing to do. It would also have the extra benefit of being the smart thing to do. Now that would set a precedent.

For more by John Feinstein, visit washingtonpost.com/feinstein.

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