Of nose cuts and face spites

It’s been a while since I’ve waded into these waters, but recent developments are prompting a revisitation to the topic—Northwestern has secured an initial ruling that puts its football and men’s basketball players on the road to unionization. So let’s talk amateurism.

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This is a debate in which I find myself disagreeing with both sides. The NCAA, for its part, is practicing histrionics by declaring that unionization would “completely throw away a system that has helped literally millions [ed: very helpful for the NCAA to distinguish from a metaphorical million] of students over the past decade alone attend college.” There are a few problems with that statement, the first being that the players’ demands certainly don’t strike me as a wholesale system teardown. Second, the NCAA’s headcount seems misplaced when it includes the likes of Andrew Wiggins and Julius Randle who, in an alternate universe devoid of post-high school waiting periods, likely would have chosen to bypass college altogether, despite all the help offered by “the system.”

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On the other side, we have the players who had the advantage of starting out in a sympathetic position. Yes, they receive compensation in the form of tuition and expenses, but it’s clearly not a market rate. Further, they are in danger of having this compensation yanked away from them in the event they are no longer able to adequately perform their job, because of an injury sustained while on the job.

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All of this seems to line up with Northwestern’s demands. They want stronger concussion protections, scholarship guarantees, and financial compensation to fund or reward the completion of a degree. Sure, all of that sounds nice and reasonable. But it also has me wondering—why the heck aren’t the players asking for this stuff prior to showing up on campus?

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You see, in traditional organized labor environments, the workers are largely fungible. You show up at the factory, and get a job on the line. There are exceptions to this—and sports leagues are one—where the workers do have highly specialized skills. But in the NBA, for instance, the league needs anti-competitive aspects to survive. If the Los Angeles Lakers—by virtue of playing in one of the largest media markets in the world—could buy up any player it wanted, agree to pay termination costs and rip up existing contracts of other players to other teams, the Lakers would be really good. They would probably win 70 or more games every season, were they able to retain the talents of Lebron James, Kevin Durant, Paul George, Anthony Davis, and Chris Paul. And the league would be really boring. The Oklahoma City Thunder, which plays in a city of roughly 600,000 residents, probably goes out of business as it’s unable to compete. Other teams would have to fold, too. And the NBA becomes the boring 8-team league where the Lakers win every year. Eventually, even the LA diehards stop caring, and the whole thing falls apart.

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That’s the theory, anyways, and the one that has justified these antitrust exemptions we see in lots of sports leagues. But for a number of reasons, the NCAA isn’t in very much danger of becoming that. So I’m back to my question—if the Northwestern player demands are important (and they certainly seem to be, given the current effort being put forth here)—why didn’t they insist on them while being recruited? Want more concussion protections? Demand them in recruiting. Want a guaranteed scholarship for four seasons? You can ask for that too—in fact, some schools are already starting to give those out. Guess what—you can ask for postgraduate scholarship money, too.

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In other words, none of these benefits require any changes to NCAA rules. And there are few people on the planet who enjoy more recruiting leverage than the prized recruit being courted by a head coach. Coaches will risk their jobs and employment sanctions in order to court high school prospects. Surely, they would indulge more modest requests like guaranteed scholarships and concussion protections.

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All of this tells me that one of two things is happening: either the players aren’t entirely forthright that this effort is not about the money, or they’re suffering from a severe case of buyer’s remorse. Instead of insisting on these things prior to signing onto the dotted line on a national letter of intent, they insisted on playing time, a certain style of play, or even shiny new locker rooms. If the things now being litigated over were really important to players, they would have them already.

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I’m not sure there’s much more to be said about the latter possibility, so let’s focus on the former, which is that unionization is one step toward outright player compensation. And let me be clear—that’s not an unworthy goal. But getting at it via unionization probably leads us to a place where schools are paying players directly. But I’m not sure how they can do that. For one, the Supreme Court told them not to. Then there’s also the problem that there really isn’t a lot of money to go around. No, really.

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First, let’s get this out of the way—it’s best to view the NCAA and its members schools as one and the same for these purposes. After all, some 96 percent of its revenues are distributed back to the schools. The NCAA is a middleman operating on a shoestring budget (and an efficient one, at that). So instead, we should focus on the schools themselves.

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Let’s take Alabama as an example. If anyone would be a worthy candidate for our vitriol, it’s the win-at-all-costs football school paying a ton of money to its head coach.

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Your eyes do not deceive you—football and men’s basketball pay out more revenue than they take in. Those sports are subsidizing the “non-revenue” teams. Some of that is because schools want to. Some of that is probably because they have to.

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Schools capitalize on men’s basketball and football players in order to subsidize expenses in other sports. That’s largely what’s happening. Sure, some people are getting rich, but Saban’s salary accounts for roughly 5 percent of the University of Alabama athletic department’s expenses. And it’s likely that his talents increase the overall department budget—if Alabama fired him tomorrow and gave his replacement a salary of $50,000, the whole department budget likely plummets as revenues drastically decline. And that’s Alabama. For most schools, the department loses money.

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This is all a very long way to illustrate that when people say that the schools should start compensating players at something closer to market value, what they necessarily mean is that schools should stop investing so much in non-revenue sports. Others have pointed this out as well (much more succinctly, it’s worth noting). And it’s not necessarily a loser, either. Stereotyping is a dangerous undertaking, but I’m fairly confident that high schoolers that are good enough to earn rowing scholarships have socioeconomic backgrounds that are—on average—better than those that go on to play men’s college basketball or football. Should we be using the talents of the worse-off to fund the educations of the better-off? Maybe not. I’m not going to weigh in more on that debate today, except to say that there seems to be a dearth of pro-player’s union pieces that are raging against the women’s soccer team.

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Of course, from a practical level, you’re asking schools to risk non-compliance with federal law and running afoul of Supreme Court directive, to say nothing of the outcry that naturally comes from pulling the plug on hundreds of varsity teams. Stranger things have happened, but not much stranger.

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My preference at the moment, however, is we simply table that debate. Schools don’t need to pay players outright—let them go get jobs like the rest of college students. If that job happens to signing a contract to put his likeness on a jersey, good for him. The counter-argument I’ve heard to this is some mix of boosters and shoe companies wreaking havoc and reducing Rome to rubble. Frankly, that’s a vote in favor, from my view. Henny Penny wasn’t right, after all.

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I’m also not sure there’s much more time for the NCAA to act on this. As we’ve seen before with the Sanity Code (and more importantly, what came immediately after it), once we march down one path, it snowballs (as the current 430-page rulebook demonstrates). Unionization is not the best outcome for either the players or the NCAA and its member schools. But it’s the one with the most momentum right now.