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Saturday, March 29, 2014

On the NLRB's Ruling that Players Can Unionize and How College Sports Will Evolve

We could be reaching an inflection point.

A point of maximum change.

A point where the Hessians reveal their true colors, as do the true educators.

A point where some schools will have to determine whether they join the dark side and fight the Jedi Knights.

Okay, here's what I'm getting at, but bear with me as I construct the argument:

1.  In certain ways, student athletes are better treated than they were, say, before social media arose, anyone can videotape anything, and coaches were vulgar with language and sometimes abusive with their physicality.  That, of course, is a good thing.

2.  Student-athletes also get built-in perks that the average student does not get -- beautiful dorms in certain places for players on certain teams, tutors, top-class workout facilities, trainers, food.

3.  Student-athletes on scholarship have one-year renewable scholarships.  Which means that coaches can run players off and not renew their scholarships.  That happens, although usually quietly, with the late Rick Majerus getting bad publicity for doing this when he was at Utah.  Many others did this as well, and sometimes for good reasons -- the kid was too immature, too injured, required too much attention, wasn't a good enough citizen, or, in many cases, wasn't a good enough player and by jettisoning him, the coach wouldn't be risking blowing up a key relationship with a "feeder," i.e., an AAU coach.  This aspect of a scholarship would give any scholarship athlete cause for pause.

4.  Student-athletes on scholarship have a one-way commitment.  The school can tie them up, but if a coach leaves, they cannot transfer to an equivalent school and be eligible right away (except under very unusual circumstances, such as to get much closer to an ill parent).  That means that the student-athlete faces uncertainty when a new coach comes in -- and unless he or she travels and sits out a year -- he or she is stuck wondering whether they'll be a part of the new coach's plans or be shunted aside because he/she doesn't fit the new coach's style or simply because he/she isn't the new coach's recruit.  This aspect of the student-athlete-school relationship has irked student-athletes and their parents for decades.

5.  Student-athletes don't always have the freedom on campus to pursue the academics they want to, and some simply get passed through by taking joke courses, getting credit for their sport (yes, some schools get away with that), having tutors every step of the way and in unscrupulous situations, tutors and others do their work for them.  This means that if a student-athlete survives the ''renewability' issue, there's no guarantee that he'll get a degree in something meaningful where he's built some skills that will translate to a job and career after he uses up his eligibility (and that's a key word, as opposed to "after he graduates," because many in the revenue sports do not graduate).

6.  There's also the issue of stipends, money, selling merchandise with player's numbers on it and selling rights to video games for college teams, how colleges sell luxury boxes, tickets and all of that and how they generally make money off the revenue sports, particularly football.  But a closer analysis realizes that Pareto's theory works in college football too.  If you were to read the book that Armen Keteyan just co-wrote about college football, only 20% of the BCS teams make any money off football (thereby shattering the myth that football pays for everything else).  Those who make the money can make a lot of it, but most do not.  I haven't seen the statistics for college basketball, but suffice it to say that all 330+ D1 men's b-ball teams sell tickets to their basketball games, I'd submit that most of them do not turn a profit off basketball.  It would be interesting to see the statistics.

And that compels the question about how to compensation DI athletes in revenue-generating sports.  There are articulate arguments on both sides, and if you were to listen to "Mike and Mike in the Morning" on ESPN Radio, you can occasionally hear Jay Bilas argue for compensation for some student-athletes and Mike Golic argue against it.  Bilas' basic premise is that they should share in the profits; Golic's argument is that they get a scholarship and an education for free, and that's worth a lot.  Both are graduate of schools with excellent academic reputations.

7.  If you have to "pay" players pursuant to their union agreements for revenue-generating college sports, how does Title IX affect all that.  Most women's sports aren't revenue generating, but Title IX is a law that requires equal deployment of monies for men and women in college.  Again, this dynamic would add expense and contribute to a Darwinism that will create "super" schools and cause also-rans and wannabes to at trite.

8.  The NLRB's decision, along with rumblings that certain of the BCS schools might break away from the NCAA and form their own leagues, are why I think that major college athletics are at an inflection point.  And I think that these are some things we can  expect in the future:

a.  certain conferences will break off from the NCAA, form their own conferences, and figure out ways to offer scholarships and compensation.  These are schools that politically probably hate the NLRB's decision and will support fighting it to the end of time, but they are also the schools that have figure out ways to turn profits and will want to turn more of them.  You can guess who they are, and they also will risk compromising the mission of their universities by doing so, because priorities will become an issue.  Are the students the priority, or winning championships?  And the questions will get particularly tricky for public universities and compel elected officials to make decisions that will tell their electorates whether they care about all kids or just the glory for some and for the university's logo.  Some will bankrupt their athletic programs in the process because the competition will crush them.  Why should they be different from any other business?  Most SEC schools will win, but the wannabes will get crushed underfoot.

b.  certain conferences will remain in the NCAA, fight the ruling too, because all they can afford are scholarships.  It's hard to predict what happens to them.

c.  certain schools will get out of the business of intercollegiate athletics, or at least revenue-generating ones, altogether.  They won't be able to afford union negotiations for students, and they also won't want the dynamic of having two classes of kids on campus (above all other delineations that occur on a college campus), those who get scholarships and payments and those who do not (despite the eloquent arguments of Jay Bilas that sports are the only place on campus where students cannot get paid; talented kids in other areas can -- but he doesn't seem to have a counter for the contention that mostly if they do, it's not their university who is paying them, it's the marketplace).

d.  some schools will have to decide what their true mission is and where they want to spend their money.  Will they want to continue to fund inter-collegiate athletics, or will they dedicate that money to a totally new concept, as follows:

     (i) totally transforming their athletic departments to have an internal focus;
     (ii) creating vigorous intramural programs that fire up the whole campus, have "house" competitions, get lots of kids involved, get them into better shape (and what a good message that would say about national fitness and addressing related diseases, such as diabetes; and
     (iii) using all of the money dedicated for athletic scholarships to merit scholarships, which would change the focus of the university, re-define its mission and then let "minor" sports leagues pop up for kids who think that they want to go pro early but do not want to go to class or get an education.  Those leagues would have zero to do with universities and colleges.  And, this type of focus would remove any ambiguity a college might have about what it's true mission is.

I think that I've come full circle.  Given the pressures on economies, how expensive college is, the sometimes difficult arguments to justify huge expenditures on intercollegiate athletics, the NLRB decision and the quest for some schools for more revenue despite evidence that they can do a bad job educating the kids who draw the revenue, we could see a huge transformation in intercollegiate athletics.  The rich "haves" will go all out to create a special "athletic" class of kids on campus, who get scholarships and money, while the wannabe haves will hurt their institutions trying and failing, while the evolvers who walk away will do so by focusing internally on their schools, spending leftover money on merit scholarships, and have an "intramural" system that enhances school spirt and creates an even greater sense of community.  There are probably "in-between" possibilities, too, but we will see change.

We always do.


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