BY Art Thiel 06:41PM 04/01/2014

Thiel: Ruling foretells fall of NCAA amateurism

A National Labor Relations Board ruling permitting college athletes to unionize will be an NCAA disaster only if colleges fail to reform their sports-business practices.

When the NCAA can fill stadiums like Michigan’s with 112,000 people, the argument about the impossibility of properly compensating athletes rings just a tad hollow. / Wiki Commons

Overshadowed by the NCAA hoops tournament and the start of baseball season was a federal-agency decision that will go a long way toward imploding a sports fraud more complicated and enduring than Lance Armstrong — the amateurism myth in college sports.

A ruling last week by National Labor Relations Board regional director Peter Sung Ohr  legitimized the bid of Northwestern University football players to create a union when he agreed that athletes are employees, not merely students, who have the  right to organize.

Northwestern officials harrumphed that they disagreed and would appeal; the NCAA, which is not a party to the case but has a huge interest in the outcome, warned of Old Testament-style plagues, and mouth-breathers such as Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Confederacy) went all Foghorn Leghorn.

“Imagine a university’s basketball players striking before a Sweet Sixteen game demanding shorter practices, bigger dorm rooms, better food, and no classes before 11 a.m.,” Alexander said. “This is an absurd decision that will destroy intercollegiate athletics as we know it.”

Alexander fell just short of quoting Leghorn: “This is the most unheard-of thing I ever heard of.”

Beyond the cartoonish bloviation, he did get close to the truth: The ruling could advance the chain of events that will result in the formal professionalization of big-time college athletics, instead of de facto pro, as it stands now.

Alexander and most critics leaped to stereotypes about unions in an attempt to demonize the varmints who came up with the idea, conveniently avoiding the fact that a key part of Ohr’s decision says athletic scholarships constitute pay for what are usually 50-hour-per-week jobs that are kept or lost at the annual discretion of the head coach, not academic standing.

That sounds to me, and most mammalian bipeds operating beyond their medulla oblongatas, like a job. There’s no arguing around it.

A point misunderstood by the status-quo crowd is that unionizing is some college kid’s  idea of a perfect solution. It is but one potential outcome, not necessarily the best or only way. What the ruling opens up is a means, still years off by any forecast, to a negotiated solution that provides proper compensation and benefits for full-time players while still leaving the NCAA with some semblance of organizational control.

What that looks like remains to be seen, but John Infante, a former college administrator who works for, has the best sense of a way forward short of annihilation by litigation. A portion of his blog post:

” . . . the ruling, much of its rationale, and other ongoing attacks on the NCAA are helping to make the NCAA’s position untenable. But not the position of amateurism and education as compensation. And not the position of commercial athletics on college campuses. What the NCAA is being forced to abandon is the assertion that it can straddle the fence between both those positions.

“On the one hand, the NCAA is technically a private, non-profit corporation governed by its members . . . On the other hand, the arguments for the NCAA’s status as a state actor or public institution are still strong. The NCAA receives a large public subsidy in the form of tax-exempt status. Many of its members are public universities, arms of state governments.

“Most athletic departments are subsidized, in many cases heavily so, by institutions which depend on state or federal aid for revenue. And in almost every other country in the world, one of the NCAA’s primary functions, preparing Olympic or national team athletes, is funded and overseen by the government.

“Broadly speaking, the current legal assault on the NCAA system demands that it abandon pretenses of being a regulatory agency or charity and operate as a better corporate citizen.”

Rather than railing against athletes who have been backed into a corner in pursuit of their fair share of NCAA sports’ enormous wealth, college sports should reform itself legally into what it really is — a for-profit entertainment corporation that organizes national rules, logistics and business so that their employees, the athletes, are fairly compensated while providing universities sufficient revenues to sustain non-revenue sports.

Such reforms will be difficult, and fraught with unintended consequences. To which I say: So what?

If Nick Saban, Mike Krzyzewski and their brethren have to take million-dollar haircuts; if some schools have to drop down in athletic class; if the remaining big-time schools have to adopt more liberal revenue sharing to assure the survival of the many; if schools have to make academic progress of scholarship athletes optional instead of mandatory; then make it so.

If the NCAA does not undertake profound reforms for itself, the courts and Congress will, then everything becomes a chaotic, unwieldy, dysfunctional mess. For years.

Ohr’s ruling is not final. It is subject to NLRB appeal and perhaps argued in federal court. But it is a substantive repudiation of the status quo, and further evidence that the hypocrisy of college sports is going to end.

It’s up to the NCAA to decide whether it likes its current position on cliff’s edge, affixed only by fingernails, or would like to negotiate for a hand up.



  • O. Nellie

    If college athletes are employees, then schools should sign basketball players to 4 year contracts. No more one and done!
    Starters should be paid more than benchwarmers.
    What happens if Oregon pays their football players more than UW?

    • Pixdawg13

      That’s already the case, evidently. But nobody pays as much as ‘Bama.

    • art thiel

      Lots pf permutations in this reform, Nellie. Do schools pay all scholarship athletes, or just the rev producers? To high-profile players deserve a bigger cut? Who pays debt service on new stadiums?

      All of which, I submit, is a matter of negotiation once the commitment is made to professionalize.

    • poulsbogary

      Probably some form of incentive compensation package. Yards rushed, passes caught, sacks made, interceptions, etc . . .

    • Its onlySports(DavidWakefield)

      I can hear it now….come to Oregon. We have “Nike Money” and with all that sweatshop cheap labor?Its substantial….

  • poulsbogary

    “Make academic progress . . . . Optional. . .”

    Art, are you saying what ithink you’re saying?

    • poulsbogary

      Because if the football player enters the university to play football, our expectations of him to perform well in say, the chemistry program, would be misguided. By the same token, a student enrolling in the university to study chemistry, we would not expect to perform well in a practice down on the floor of Husky stadium.
      So, in this new paradigm, a complete dis-association of the athletic program from the academic mission of really any university would not only be expected, it would be welcome. They could co-exist alongside, but there would be no interchange.
      I agree with that point, if that is what Art is saying.

      • Al Wasser

        A dis-association of athletics from academics? You mean actually acknowledging reality? Maybe that might even lead some schools to take a step back, look at things, and say “Why should we have employees (athletes) hired only to entertain the public?”

        • Chuck

          That would be fantastic. Schools educating. Get out of athletics all together. I have always loved college football but the whole thing starts to make me queasy as I get older. America ranks poorly in math and science compared to the rest of the world. Maybe a renewed focus on academics is in order. You wont hear that on sports radio.

  • RadioGuy

    If nothing else, we know Lamar Alexander is still alive (if not particularly relevant).

    Seriously, this is the first step down what could be a proverbial slippery slope. I have no animus toward players who want to get paid (although I suspect the Northwestern guys who attend classes will be able to find work after graduation). Those millions of people attending BCS football games aren’t plunking down money to watch coaches roam the sidelines.

    However, the advent of open professionalism WOULD result in a form of free agency that has nothing to do with the “student” part of the oft-oxymoronic phrase “student-athlete” because the bloom will totally be off the silk rose. And will every FCS program have a cadre of Sam Gilberts and Jim Heckmans lining players’ pockets? I’m more than a little skeptical of criticism of the union movement from David Shaw, who’s being paid $3 million a year to coach at Stanford. Physician, heal thyself.

    One real concern I have is for the non-revenue sports (i.e., every sport but football and men’s basketball) that rely on football to cover their own expenses. What happens to them if football revenues are diverted to pay football players instead? This is going to be a real problem for the NCAA, but it’s a problem of their own making.

    • 1coolguy

      Non-rev sports, which are MOST of college athletics, are played for the love of the game. Crew, swimming, volleyball, softball, baseball, etc: I don’t hear these athletes whining.
      This si a crock and FB and BB pay for the schools athletic departments and non-rev sports.
      Take that system away and what do you have?

      I heard some goof ball say the other day how much money the Universities make off jerseys: Only a couple players par team, at most, have their jerseys sold in any quantity. How about Joe Blow lineman on Eastern Washington? How much money is he foregoing to not have a commission on his jersey sales?

      This whole thing is a crock and those supporting it are fixated on a real minority of schools, so it simply doesn’t work.

      Of course the obvious choice is the kids” if you want to be paid, go somewhere else. Simple.

  • jafabian

    I’m so against this. These student athletes are getting a full ride scholarship to the best schools in the world. There’s students who later contribute to society for a lifetime and help people as politicians, doctors, lawyers, engineers, bankers, teachers, the arts and in other professions but don’t participate in athletics. What does that say about a system that rewards the athlete but not other students? Athletes at best compete until their 40.

    Student athletes have it good right now and should be greatful for it. There are MILLIONS of people who’d love to have the opportunities that they have afforded to them.

    • StephenBody

      And what about the ones who are NOT going to the best schools in the world and what about the ones who are NOT full-ride? Maybe you’re not aware of this but there is actually NO SUCH THING as a four-year scholarship. What kids get is a series of one-year scholarships that can be voided at any time by their coaches or the institutiuon. In short, just like you, they can be FIRED for poor performance. Let’s not pretend that a scholarship to Duke or Stanford or Harvard is anything at all like a scholarship to Coppin State or Idaho. There are premium situations in education just as in whether you work for Microsoft or for a start-up that makes cell phone apps. And don’t kid yourself, either, that many, MANY of those “politicians, doctors, lawyers, engineers, bankers, teachers, the arts and in other professions” didn’t have some part of their fine education paid for by the school’s athletic department. The departments that teach those skills generate ZERO revenues for the schools. Athletics generates millions, at some schools, and a significant proportion at others. Let’s all stop pretending that student athletes are these spoiled brats who simply don’t appreciate the fat ride they’ve been given. Let’s stick your butt into a 50+ hour a week job and then see how you like it when you can’t afford to go out and get a pizza with your buds on Friday night. I think we all know how THAT would go over.

      • 1coolguy

        That’s who JUCO’s are for. It did just fine for OJ……….

    • 1coolguy

      RIGHT ON!!!
      A good place to start for all these “poor kids” is : NO APARTMENTS, since they do get free room and board, and NO CARS, just like all other “poor” students.
      The poor college athlete, when you look at ALL the sports, is not as numerous as the media would like you to think.
      I don’t hear the women student / athletes crying about money, nor any of the student / athletes OTHER than BB and Football players.

      Also, if they need money, they DON”T HAVE TO TURN OUT! Very simple.
      Or go to a JUCO, DII or DIII school. There are plenty of options outside of DI.

  • notaboomer

    our struggle to defeat each other — at
    work, at school, at play, and at home — turns all of us
    into losers.

    • StephenBody

      Peace, love, and unicorns!

  • StephenBody

    Bravo! It’s long past time that we should start having a serious, teeth ‘n’ claws, discussion about this. Even if the Northwestern ploy doesn’t turn out to be the working model for the future, maybe something will finally get done to address what amounts to indentured servitude for most college athletes. I have some really ugly memories of sneaking food from my restaurant’s kitchen to some of the Tennessee kids who didn’t have year-round training table and had no way to pay for meals. I don’t sit by and watch children go hungry and if the NCAA insists that that’s how it should be, the NCAA can go soak it’s collective head. And, given their historical hauteur and inflexibility, they’d never do anything if the’re not nailed to a wall and forced to.

    • art thiel

      You get it, Stephen. Most players who don’t come from families of means, or who are low profile but important to results, often are ignored by the big-money boosters who give money under the table. Everyone knows the system is corrupt, but they are all getting rich, or at least stable from it. Reforms come hard.

  • Ulysses Klaw

    Well, at least we will always have cool college mascots like these:

  • Chuck Campbell

    Why doesn’t the NFL establish a farm team for each franchise? Its been working for baseball for years. 32 teams, each with 50 of the best blue chip 18 – 24 year olds. College players can go back to “winning one for the Gipper”, and those who have no interest in college but excel in football can pursue their sport and make a wage at the same time. The NFL wants to extend the season to 18 games to generate more revenue. Maybe they need an additional league?