IT’S OFFICIAL, according to a preliminary ruling of the National Labor Relations Board: The college sports industry’s claim that it exists to serve student-athletes doesn’t hold, er, Gatorade. Teams are composed of full-time athletes who labor under highly restrictive, sometimes dangerous conditions, and they deserve a stronger voice in how colleges and universities treat and compensate them.
The hard truth for those who love watching college sports is that major-conference basketball and football teams, billion-dollar businesses, exploit many of their players. By pretending the system is designed to help them, the teams add insult to sometimes literal injury.
The labor relations board’s ruling cuts through the hypocrisy. Examining Northwestern University’s football program, NLRB Regional Director Peter Sung Ohr found that players spend far more time competing and preparing for games than they do studying. They are under the supervision of well-compensated sports professionals — in most states, the highest-paid public employee is a college football or men’s basketball coach — rather than faculty members. In return, Mr. Ohr noted, the players get scholarships holding economic value. That can’t reasonably be construed to be an academic relationship.
In fact, the rot is more extensive than Mr. Ohr describes. The problem is not simply that some college athletes are treated more like employees than students. It is that too many of them are shortchanged. M ost athletes on highly competitive teams aren’t superstars who will make millions after spending some time in collegiate servitude. Their compensation is in their scholarships — the education they are supposedly getting while putting in full-time hours on the field. But, according to the NCAA’s own numbers, this year’s top-seeded Division I men’s basketball teams have graduation rates that hover around 60 percent. There are ugly racial divides: The University of Central Florida reports that 89 percent of white players on all NCAA Tournament teams graduate, but only 65 percent of their African American teammates do. And those numbers follow an NCAA drive to graduate more players.
Those who do get a diploma, meanwhile, haven’t necessarily gained much. HBO’s “Real Sports” recently dug up example after example of college players who got degrees in “general studies” or “multidisciplinary studies” from respectable universities and now work menial jobs. One could barely read. A University of Oklahoma professor admitted that he helped push players through to keep the football program running. “There’s one like me at every big-time university in the country,” he said.
These facts should shame any institution that claims to be devoted to learning. Are student unions the answer? Should the National Football League and the National Basketball Association be told to organize their own minor leagues, instead of letting colleges serve the function for them?
Hard questions, but the truth is that if colleges really wanted to, they could promote amateur competition that complements coursework instead of replacing it, or at least be fairer to the athletes. Divide television revenue evenly among schools and conferences. Expect students to study more than practice. Set aside money to compensate those who incur major injuries. Pay their coaches university wages. It’s on the colleges and universities and their enablers in the NCAA to do the right thing.
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