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[April 20, 2014]
College athletics could be changing [Muskogee Phoenix, Okla. :: ]
(Muskogee Phoenix (OK) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) April 20--Forget the realignment fiasco or the march toward a playoff system in football. On Friday, the world of collegiate sports will begin its most radical change when athletes at Northwestern University vote on whether to unionize.
This of course, is all about the sweat shops within the NCAA, where millions are made off the performances of these players ranging from ticket sales to likeness on a video game. And it is sweat labor, a mix of early-morning weightlifting sessions to grinding it out on the playing field to springing across campus to class to letting the bedsheets soak up either the lingering perspiration from an exhausted body or the relief of a well-deserved shower.
Schools at the Division I level unload tons of cash annually into their bank accounts. Some of that is quickly withdrawn for escalating equipment and facility costs and the latest big-hire coach.
It's never bothered me whether a Trevor Knight should get a bonus check for beating Bama. Much of me couldn't care less if T. Boone Pickens has to negotiate benefits packages with the Oklahoma State offensive line.
But having joined the many of you who are or are about to send kids off to college and are scrambling to figure how to cover the cost, I have become a little more sensitive to it.
This may be a sweat shop, and there's no arguing there's exploitation of these athletes in a way that would never pass at the professional level. But those of us who are dropping our jaws at $260 textbooks know that these kids hardly work for free -- OK, well, maybe the parents are the ones being compensated.
It's also unfair that they, unlike our kids, will be hard-pressed because of the mix of athletic and academic demands to be able to find a job. Which is why I really don't care if some alumni wants to throw a few dollars at them, within limits.
Too long, the NCAA has looked the other way on a system in need of reform. But now, it may be out of their hands. The National Labor Relations Board may soon run the NCAA. Union reps are hovering around in advance of the vote outcome. If affirmed by Northwestern's players, that hovering will move into the Top 25 and the others receiving votes quicker than you can say RPI.
Even if the vote fails -- to me, that's a prospect unlikely being that Northwestern is on the outskirts of Chicago, a city married to union movements -- the cat's out of the bag. For months, NCAA president Mark Emmert has acknowledged the current system must change to benefit athletes more. For starters, maybe the NCAA should be honest in addressing the term "student athlete." Did you catch this recent response in regard to Northwestern's situation? "This union-backed attempt to turn student-athletes into employees undermines the purpose of college: an education," Donald Remy, the NCAA's chief legal officer, said in a statement. "Student-athletes are not employees, and their participation in college sports is voluntary. We stand for all student-athletes, not just those the unions want to professionalize." Remy, your intentions are good but not honest. None of your "investors" down here care what Knight makes on his Biology exam. They do care if he can beat Texas. That's not only the fans, but that's the people within the system too. You think Bob Stoops makes substantially more than the average professor at OU because of his management of the team's study hall? Change is coming and it will get messy. Who gets paid and how much? What about other non-revenue sports and those athletes and the implied discrimination issues there? What about partial scholarships outside of football and basketball and how would compensation affect qualifications for Pell grants and other forms of aid? How many of the programs treading water, spending as much as they take in, will make it? How much will a ticket cost going forward? And, how much will my son and your daughter's tuition cost us? Because when the schools take a hit, be it from slashed funding coming out of governments or boards to this, the burden is passed down the pike.
The radical, and perhaps healthy response is to do what Major League Baseball does and what Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban suggested recently could be done through the NBA Development League -- offer athletes an option outside of college, therefore creating the ability to end the one-and-done college careers of some of the most talented players.
That would keep the alleged legitimacy of the student-athlete intact. Gone would be the one-and-done instances of kids leaving college for the NBA draft as freshmen. If a union were in place, contracts might require a full four-year commitment.
Such a transition like Cuban proposes isn't likely to happen in your average Division I town. Even if, somehow, the teams replace those connected to the school (can you say Norman Sooners?), it's a cultural shift that would take decades to adjust to, I believe. For the fan, it's often the degree that connects them to the team and prompts the open checkbook.
So for that reason, a divorce between athletics and colleges isn't going to happen as long as there's any revenue stream at all. Not as long as there's no other sound option for hotels that fill up on weekends, or restaurants that are packed.
But when some of those are already seeing a crossroads, who knows. Recently, Maryland cut seven sports from its university's athletic program. Maybe there should be a divorce of the two revenue sports from the NCAA, with the papers stating that an "alimony" payment covers the "association" to the family which goes to the remaining sports and perhaps, a fund to help the average student.
These are indeed uncertain waters.
Whatever happens, hold on to your wallet. This is all about "trickle-down" economics.
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