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The NCAA Confronts A Triple Threat

Kain Colter is what you'd call a triple threat: He can pass, he can run, and he can count.

Colter, a former college quarterback who hopes to make it to the pros after graduating this spring, is the front man for an effort by Northwestern University football players to form a union, the College Athletes Players Association. The players scored when a National Labor Relations Board regional official ruled last week that the student athletes are, in fact, employees of Northwestern, and thus have the right under federal law to unionize.

But though the student-players have completed a strong opening drive, there is a long way to go before the final whistle blows in this high-stakes contest. Northwestern has already said it will appeal to the full NLRB in Washington. Depending on how the appeal proceeds, the case could ultimately end up before the Supreme Court.

Lurking on the sidelines is the NCAA, which is not technically a party to the case but which has the most at stake if college players can claim protection under federal and state labor laws. In the big-money sports of football and men's basketball, the entire NCAA business model is built on the premise that while schools, coaches, athletic directors and broadcasters can profit magnificently from the athletes’ labors, the players themselves are entitled to nothing more than the academic scholarships their schools hand out and the degrees those scholarships enable them to earn. An organization that bans players from profiting in any way from their own names or faces is unlikely to budge from its “commitment to amateurism” - also known as its commitment to free labor.

Colter recounted for the NLRB the grueling schedule of preparation, practice and games that led him to abandon Northwestern’s rigorous pre-med curriculum. When he added up the hours, his football responsibilities were a full-time obligation. “It’s a job,” Colter said, according to ESPN, “there is no way around it - it’s a job.” He testified that athletes put in 40 to 50 hours a week before and during football season.

The school’s popular head football coach (and a former Northwestern player), Pat Fitzgerald, countered that Northwestern’s athletics department pays a lot of attention to its athletes’ academic credentials and performance, and that the department accommodates athletes’ needs when asked. “Creating structure from a standpoint of academic success,” Fitzgerald called it, according to Sports Illustrated. He also noted that the academic credentials that the admissions department expects, even from students recruited for athletics, are more rigorous than the NCAA’s minimum. Northwestern is not a school where academics are overlooked, even for football stars.

That much is true. I know this directly because my daughter, a recent NU graduate, shared several challenging classes with some of Colter’s teammates, who could hold their own with the other students at a school often fondly called “Nerd Western.”

True or not, though, it is irrelevant. Northwestern may be a benevolent employer by the standards of college athletics, but it is still an employer. The New York Times reported that the NLRB ruling rightly focused not on the players’ treatment but on the relationship between the players and the university. Witness: Any student with the temerity to quit the football team for a reason other than injury would almost surely lose his scholarship, no matter how good his grades. No work, no pay.

The NCAA is even more disingenuous. It released a statement after the NLRB ruling noting that athletes “across all sports” participate in college athletics “for the love of the sport, not to be paid.” That may be true in money-sucking activities like lacrosse and tennis, where there is essentially no audience and no television cash at stake. But it certainly is not the case for athletes like Colter. Instead of applying to medical school this semester, he will be heading to the NFL’s spring combine to have his physical skills evaluated against those of other players who hope to turn pro. His time as an NU Wildcat was just a step on Colter’s career ladder. How is this not a job?

This is not to mention the physical risks run by student athletes. Almost exactly a year after University of Louisville’s Kevin Ware publicly and wrenchingly broke his leg in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, his athletic future is uncertain. And, as I noted last year, the medical care Louisville provides will end when his college enrollment does, regardless of the status of his injury. When universities and the NCAA argue that athletes in lucrative sports play because they love the game and for no other reason, they ask the rest of us to ignore the reality of the millions of dollars those athletes generate without the ability to negotiate the conditions of their work.

I have a particularly nasty mental image of a tenured professor holding forth on the evils of income inequality in a lecture hall, while on a nearby practice field serfs in shoulder pads donate their labor in exchange for nothing more than the right to hear that professor pontificate.

The NLRB was right to blow the whistle on this hypocrisy. College athletes, at least in sports that generate the big bucks, are a labor force. It is long past time their rights are recognized.

Larry M. Elkin is the founder and president of Palisades Hudson, and is based out of Palisades Hudson’s Fort Lauderdale, Florida headquarters. He wrote several of the chapters in the firm’s book, Looking Ahead: Life, Family, Wealth and Business After 55. His contributions include Chapter 1, “Looking Ahead When Youth Is Behind Us” and Chapter 4, “The Family Business."

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