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Members of the Northwestern University football team recently received approval from the National Labor Relations Board to be treated as a labor union — in effect, turning student athletes into university employees.
As college sports flourish, the issues of unionization and student-athlete compensation are fair questions that deserve careful thought and thorough debate considering all the potential consequences of change.
Let’s start with understanding the amateur model. Participating in college sports is rooted in a basic, deeply American concept: work hard, make sacrifices, and get something extremely valuable — an education at an elite American university, something most families save for a lifetime to attain.
Make no mistake, student athletes’ hard work and commitment absolutely benefit schools, which generate revenue and bigger donations while building their brands. Student athletes also get a lot in return: an invaluable education at prestigious institutions; free room and board; professional mentoring; opportunities to travel; a crash course in perseverance, discipline, teamwork, sacrifice and toughness; and a chance to learn life lessons while being taught, coached and guided in a nurturing environment preparing them for the ultimate game of life.
What you see is a consensual, symbiotic relationship between schools and student athletes in which everyone benefits.
Students who want a salary for their athletic prowess, or who simply do not appreciate or want a college education, should be allowed to take a separate path and play professional sports. College sports were never intended to be a minor league feeder system for professional sports and, based on the fact that less than 1 percent of all student athletes ever play their sport professionally, college sports clearly are not that.
The vast majority of student athletes do not wind up on magazine covers. They will, on average, graduate at a higher rate than students who don’t play sports and will go on to a different career often based on their academic field of study.
Discarding this amateurism model will trigger a powerful chain reaction, unintended consequences sure to affect schools’ Olympic and non-revenue-producing sports and roll back Title IX gains, depriving thousands of young people a college education. (Revenue from college sports is our country’s single greatest source of college scholarships next to the federal government).
If the amateur model is blown up, other vexing questions come into play, including the virtual impossibility of determining who gets paid what. Is it by performance? Position? Recruit versus walk-on? How does women’s field hockey compare to football? And where does it stop? Do we start paying kids playing in the televised Little League World Series? What about increased exposure for high school sports?
The fact is, the vast majority of NCAA Division I football and basketball programs operate in the red, subsidized by funds from outside athletics. It would be a travesty to see non-revenue programs, which support the dreams and ambitions of thousands of student athletes, denied funding and shut down.
Undoubtedly, the rapid growth of intercollegiate athletics has put many more demands on student athletes. Reforms must be undertaken to ensure the players’ well-being, including full and appropriate care when injured. On the financial side, changes to cover student athletes’ full cost of attendance are a very good start.
Universities must redouble efforts to make educating students their No. 1 priority, more important than any championship. We should look at ways to offer coaches an incentive toward academic success, not just wins and titles. In managing their growing sports programs, schools must fully commit to elevating their educational mission, preserving the extraordinary value of a college education in an amateur setting.
I believe reforms can and will be made to better support student athletes. Putting them on a salary and into unions should not be among these changes. Treating student athletes as school employees will do far more harm than good … for our young people and for America.
Ben Sutton is president of IMG College, the nation’s leading collegiate marketing agency.
For more information on guest columns in Street & Smith’s SportsBusiness Journal, please contact Betty Gomes at (704) 973-1439 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
A few years ago, another person was frequently mentioned as a possible leader of the PGA Tour: former Deutsche Bank CEO Seth Waugh, who established the company’s successful sponsorship of the tour’s Labor Day event in Boston and became a respected voice in the game. Waugh stepped down from his post in 2012, and a few months ago, I spent some time with him at his Florida home to discuss what’s next in his life. While he laughed off talk about ever succeeding Finchem, he was effusive in his praise for the longtime golf commissioner, who he acknowledged is “a little bit of a mystery” among sports leaders.
“Tim’s incredibly organized,” Waugh said. “He’s incredibly disciplined. He is methodical in a good way: not afraid to make a decision, but very measured in terms of how he thinks about things. He doesn’t ever act until he believes he’s ready. He is relentless. He has a goal and keeps at it. He is incredibly well-prepared, so when he goes to negotiate a television deal, he’s spent an enormous amount of time thinking about it, understanding it, modeling it — and he’s the smartest guy in the room because he’s done that work. He never takes his eye off the prize. He’s very good at focusing on what matters most and getting the best possible result for that and then moving on to the next thing.”
I wondered if Finchem’s low-key style may keep him from getting the attention he deserves. “You’re right,” Waugh agreed. “If you see him in a big room, he’s not the guy working the room. He’s in a corner, and people are coming to him. As a result, everything kind of happens on his terms. He’s very controlled and, again, kind of dogmatic and relentless on what he thinks is in the best interest of his business.”
Waugh marvels at how Finchem has handled the broad agendas of his membership — the pro golfers. “It’s a different perspective of the top 10 to 20 players than it is the top 100 to 125, who want as many opportunities to play, whereas the top-10 guys want to have great events that they can fit in,” he said. “Balancing all those interests is not easy and he’s done that very well.”
Waugh is bullish on the state of the game: “Golf is in a really good spot. Tim and his guys have done a great job. He and I had a bunch of conversations after the downturn. He called one weekend and goes, ‘How bad is this?’ I said, ‘It’s real bad. You need to hunker down.’ I’m frankly very impressed that they’ve been able to retain and find new sponsors through what was a really tough time. Jay Monahan has made a big difference. He was our first tournament director and a great guy.
“Tiger’s still the guy, and still really important, but the post-Tiger world is setting itself up well. There are a lot of great young players who are interesting. It may not be the same phenomenon as during Tiger’s prime; it probably never will be. But there are compelling stories and great players. The quality of the play every week is incredible, and having gotten to know a lot of these players, they are really impressive people. Great kids; they’re not entitled.”
Waugh understands golf, the PGA Tour and its inner workings. He also understands business and leadership. He’s an interesting person, so look for more of my conversation with him in an upcoming issue.
Abraham D. Madkour can be reached at email@example.com.