The contrails from jets ferrying well-meaning college officials and functionaries out of D.C., where they’d convened to discuss how to maintain the multibillion-dollar college sports system without having to pay its laborer-athletes, had barely faded when an early-bird basketball season tickets’ sales pitch was heard from LSU:
“This year’s campaign will focus on the arrival of the nation’s No. 1 recruit, Ben Simmons, and his chosen jersey number ‘25.’
“Through this ‘25’ campaign, fans wishing to become season ticket holders will have the opportunity to lock in their season tickets for the 2015-16 men’s basketball season in the Pete Maravich Assembly Center. Sea son tickets start at just $100.”
Simmons wasn’t even scheduled to graduate from his high school in Montverde, Fla., until Saturday. Yet, the teenager was already being bedecked in LSU purple and gold bumper stickers in the school’s shamelessly overt professional marketing effort to generate revenue off his athletic sweat and blood.
This was the latest exhibit of the futility of the increasingly desperate search by groups like the Knight Commission, which met at Georgetown on Tuesday, for an alternative to treating the highest profile college athletes — football and basketball players — as the university employees they’ve become. A solution will not be found in the Potemkin village constructed by the NCAA around its tens-of-billion dollar endeavors of college basketball and football.
As I attended yet another gathering of these good people, many of whom I’ve known and liked for years, I felt as if I was watching a collective of Sisyphuses about to get crushed by that boulder of truth.
That truth is there is no escaping the slew of lawsuits and inquiries that are beginning to change, or will radically change, the generations-long arrangement between athletes on campus and the financing of the academy. Nor should there be.
The time passed long ago when colleges and universities should enter into an equitable relationship with athletes who generate copious amounts of revenue for the higher education corporation. And equitable doesn’t mean an extra couple thousand dollars in grants to athletes, as NCAA President Mark Emmert proposed at a commission meeting three years ago.
It doesn’t just mean turning one-year renewable athletic scholarships into four-year or whatever-it-takes-to-graduate deals as some schools, like Maryland, and conferences, like the Big Ten, have suddenly started to offer.
It doesn’t mean cracking down on the overtime spent by athletes practicing their sport rather than digging deeper into the studies for which they are ostensibly on campus.
It doesn’t mean deciding in the final hour to make an exception to often arbitrary rules against giving college athletes more than other students by picking up the tab for a couple of their family members to travel to see them play in the football national championship or basketball’s Final Four.
It really means much of that and a lot more. And it starts with acknowledging that college athletes in revenue-generating sports are laborers and should be treated as such. That is the basis for a burgeoning two-month-old national faculty group I joined as a signatory from my visiting professorship at Maryland. The College Athletes Rights & Empowerment Faculty Coalition, or CARE-FC, believes “there will be no genuine reform in the college sport industry until college football and basketball players are accorded status as employees with the attendant legal and civil rights that accrue.”
Notre Dame’s Athletic Director Jack Swarbrick and Henry Bienen, president emeritus of my alma mater, Northwestern, suggested to USA Today after the commission meeting Tuesday that their athletic teams would not participate in a system in which players were paid, provided workers’ comp and health benefits like everyone else who put in tens of hours of work each week to keep the university corporation whirring. Maybe if Swarbrick lorded over Notre Dame College of South Euclid, Ohio, he would find somewhere else to play. But not the iconic Fighting Irish football team that Forbes estimated in 2014 earned $48 million on $81 million in revenue. Swarbrick’s Notre Dame won’t find that kind of cheddar playing in a league of its own.
Truth is, colleges and universities already treat college athletes as employees. As tax policy lawyer Lorry Spitzer reminded the Knight Commission from a panel discussion, “if a scholarship is granted and it provides to the student that if you voluntarily choose to stop playing on the team, we’re going to stop giving you the scholarship, that is not a helpful fact . . . ” to the argument college athletes are just students.
U.S. District Judge Claudia Wilken, in ruling against college sports’ view of its athletes in the Ed O’Bannon case, wrote: “The historical record that the NCAA cites as evidence of its long-standing commitment to amateurism is unpersuasive. This record reveals that the NCAA has revised its rules governing student-athlete compensation numerous times over the years, sometimes in significant and contradictory ways. Rather than evincing the association’s adherence to a set of core principles, this history documents how malleable the NCAA’s definition of amateurism has been since its founding.”
Malleable put it mildly when you consider that the architect of the modern NCAA, Walter Byers, who directed college sports’ governing body it for 36 years until retiring in 1987, published in 1995 what reads like a confessional: Unsportsmanlike Conduct: Exploiting College Athletes. In it, Byers explained that he created the phrase “student-athlete” in 1964 to describe college athletes after two state courts ruled in separate cases that scholarship students injured or killed in the course of participating in their sports were actually university “employees” due workers’ comp. “[The NCAA] dreaded [the] notion that NCAA athletes could be identified as employees by state industrial commissions and the courts,” Byers wrote. “We crafted the term student-athlete, and soon it was embedded in all NCAA rules and interpretations as a mandated substitute for such words as players and athletes.”
We in the media perpetuated the semantic sleight of tongue and unwittingly provided cover for the NCAA in the court of public opinion and beyond. We shouldn’t participate in the charade any longer. No one should. Not until Ben Simmons gets an equitable return for his No. 25 jerseys that LSU will probably put up for sale.
Kevin B. Blackistone, visiting professor at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland, writes sports commentary for the Post.