Gary Conkling Life Notes

Mostly whimsical reflections on life

Up from the Plantation

So now college athletes on scholarships can form a union. It is hard to know whether this is a good or bad thing. But it is clear that something like this was inevitable.

thumb.phpYou can only keep strapping, aggressive and smarter-then-you-think college athletes down on the plantation so long. When they call Stanford University “The Farm,” maybe they really mean it.

A regional director of the National Labor Relations Board ruled this week that athletic scholarships are tied to performance on the field, not in the classroom. That makes the football quarterback, basketball point guard and volleyball spiker effectively employees of the university they attend. The NCAA responded by saying the “union-backed attempt to turn athletes into employees undermines the purpose of college education.” In other words, college players are farmhands who don’t have the right to unionize.

Technically, the NLRB ruling only applies to private institutions of higher education such as Northwestern, whose players brought the action. But the ruling’s implications and precedents are likely to affect all colleges and universities.

The ruling will be appealed and vigorously debated all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, much as professional baseball fought Curt Flood who refused to be traded like a piece of property. He lost his case, but his stand against all-odds led to free agency, changing the face of Major League Baseball forever.

Universities and the NCAA have lorded over college athletes for years and made billions of dollars off their sweat. It was only a matter of time before the boys and girls in pads and cleats rebelled.

ncf_u_kotler11_300x300Assuming that sooner or later college athletes will be able to form some kind of bargaining unit, it is interesting to see what will top their “list of demands.” Outgoing Northwestern University quarterback Kain Colter, who helped push for the right to form the College Athlete Players Association, said a top priority is greater protection to minimize brain injuries and compensation for former players who suffer sports-related brain injuries.

Sports talk shows and websites are abuzz with all kinds of speculation, including whether the ruling will be limited to the big-bucks college sports of football and basketball. However, when you consider a bargaining agenda that leads off with improved safety, it is hard to see how you could exclude soccer, lacrosse or track and field – or women’s athletics.

College sports has become big business and not just for a handful of marquee schools. For all of the pageantry, rivalries and diehard fans, college sports is a business and its most valuable employees are the ones with the uniforms, not the headphones.

You could imagine college athletic unions at some point making whacky demands for bigger steaks on the chow line or forcing coaches to quit shouting so much, then threatening to strike if their demands aren’t met. But caricatures of this possibility trivialize the current-day travails of student athletes. They play for the love of the game and get a college education in return. Players shoulder the risk of injury and often are punished for silly infractions that seem more suited for elementary school than college.

It may fall to student athlete unions to do something about recruits that are better candidates for drug rehab than college sports and the exploitation of lesser talented athletes who walk on and play without a scholarship, yet are exposed to the same serious threats of injury. Student athlete unions can blow the whistle on abusive coaches or star athletes who abuse the rules and think they can get away with it.

As the old saying goes, you earn the union you get. Major universities and the NCAA have earned the union they are destined to get.

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