SBJ/April 15 - 21, 2002/Opinion

NCAA policy invites players to unionize

Ramogi Huma and his Collegiate Athletes Coalition are pushing for better insurance, off-season earning rights.

In 1980, when I was still committed to 1960s-style activism, I took a leave of absence from my job as a college professor to serve as director of the Center for Athletes Rights and Education (CARE). The primary mission of CARE, an organization funded by a $250,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Education and co-sponsored by the National Football League Players Association and the National Conference of Black Lawyers, was to defend the educational, legal and medical rights of high school and college athletes. One of our major goals was to organize advocacy groups composed of former and present college athletes on college campuses throughout the country.

At our first press conference at the NFLPA offices in Washington, we unveiled an "athletes bill of rights" whose preamble stated our belief that college athletes are both students and professional entertainers. We argued that as students, athletes are entitled to the same educational opportunities as other students. As workers, they are entitled to safe working conditions and fair compensation for the revenue they generate.

We also took the position that college athletes should have the right to form unions. It was this final item that brought us instant nationwide media coverage. It was this final item that also created tremendous pressure on the Department of Education to cut our funding.

Although CARE was short-lived, our small staff managed to send shock waves through the collegiate sport establishment. Walter Byers, the executive director of the NCAA at the time, wrote in his book, "Unsportsmanlike Conduct," that there was an immediate "red alert" in response to CARE's proposals. The NCAA staff was told to "get on this one right away."

Although the NCAA's policy-making council felt assured by its attorneys that states would likely decline to require their institutions to bargain with unions of student athletes, a law firm in Washington, D.C., warned against being too complacent. "Whenever a group of people band together and insist upon acting in concert," said one attorney, "they usually have to be dealt with in some fashion or another."

CARE lost its funding after one year, largely because the leadership refused to compromise or to tone down its political rhetoric. We also failed to garner support from large numbers of athletes themselves.

Although CARE was a little ahead of its time, I am convinced that conditions have changed so dramatically in college sport over the past two decades that a similar effort launched today would have a very good chance of succeeding. Whether college athletes actually form unions or simply band together into independent players associations, they would constitute a force for collegiate athletic reform that could not be ignored.

For over a year now, a quiet effort to organize college athletes has been under way in California. Under the leadership of former UCLA football player Ramogi Huma, an organization called the Collegiate Athletes Coalition is pursuing goals similar to those proposed by CARE two decades ago. For instance, the CAC wants better medical benefits for athletes and the right to earn more money in the off-season.

Even though the CAC is more moderate than CARE was, its alliance with the United Steelworkers has undoubtedly put the NCAA on "red alert" once again. The thought of thousands of college athletes across America joining together to demand real athletic reform may be the NCAA's greatest nightmare.

The CAC has a number of things going for it. First of all, there are fewer people today than 20 years ago who still accept the NCAA's claim that college sport is an amateur activity. Even the prestigious Knight Foundation in its 2001 Report on Intercollegiate Athletics candidly admits that "big-time college football and basketball have been thoroughly professionalized and commercialized." Universities, just like professional sports franchises, play in stadiums with luxury boxes, negotiate billion-dollar deals with television networks, and market corporate sponsorships and licensed merchandise.

Given this reality, it would be preposterous to oppose the organization of college athletes on the grounds that it would detract from the "amateur spirit" of the games.

Not only that, but athletes are much more aware that they are being exploited. Many star coaches earn well over $1 million a year in salary and make millions more from deals with sporting goods dealers and sneaker manufacturers. Athletes wear the sneakers, display the logos on their uniforms and use their exceptional talents to attract capacity crowds. The coaches and their universities keep the profits. There is no reason why players should not engage in the same entrepreneurial activities as their coaches.

Some argue that athletes are more than compensated for their labor by the education they receive. The Knight Foundation Commission questions this bit of conventional wisdom. According to the commission, "In the year 2001, the big business of big-time college sports all but swamps educational values, making a mockery of those professing to uphold them." Television now requires that games be played on weekday evenings, on Sundays, in the morning and late at night. Seasons are longer and athletes are routinely pulled out of classes in the middle of the week. As the Knight Commission argues, education for athletes is now narrowly defined as staying eligible.

Most professors would probably agree that the model of collegiate sport that is most compatible with the academic mission of higher education is one in which students engage in sports as a recreational activity during their free time. In such a model, which in years past was known as amateurism, there are no athletic scholarships and athletes are not contractually obligated to play sports in order to maintain their financial aid. In schools that embrace this model, pressure to exploit athletes for financial gain is minimal to nonexistent, and the notion that athletes may need labor unions to protect their right to a quality education in inconceivable.

Big-time college sport is a totally different story. With millions and even billions of dollars on the line, coaches are under tremendous pressure to win. The athletic scholarship system allows coaches to recruit blue-chip athletes and to control their behavior both on and off the field. Athletes are commodities that can be abandoned if they do not contribute to program success. It is at this level that organizations such as the Collegiate Athletes Coalition are absolutely necessary to guarantee athletes fair treatment.

Given the NCAA's commitment to growing its multibillion-dollar sports entertainment empire, the emergence of players associations for athletes is not only likely, it is inevitable.

Allen L. Sack (asack@newhaven.edu) is director of sports management in the School of Business at the University of New Haven.

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