College sports desperately needs a game-changer like Marvin Miller
Marvin Miller is dead at 95, and the timing is almost poetic. This is the start of baseball's offseason. Even now, Miller's signature might as well be on every one of those multimillion-dollar contracts. This is the world he created as the players' union leader in the 1960s and '70s.
It is tempting to look at the $100-million deals and say Miller's work was done. It is not.
We need another Marvin Miller.
We need one for college athletes.
We need a man with Miller's vision, passion, political acumen and intelligence to change the NCAA's antiquated amateurism rules.
And you know what? Miller knew it. A few years ago, I asked him about the business model of college sports, where coaches make millions of dollars and players are suspended for taking gifts beyond their scholarships.
"It's obviously inequitable," Miller told me at the time. "It reminds me of the old days in baseball, except major league coaches and managers were as much discriminated against as the players. Apparently, not so here. Here, it's just the players."
The NCAA argues that it can't pay football and men's basketball players because it needs to give scholarships to non-revenue sport athletes. But Miller said: "It's a very poor argument on their part, that they can exploit one group to pay another. They've got even greater power to discriminate than the government does."
We need another Miller. It is easy to see that college sports' amateurism rules are unfair. I've written it at least a dozen times; others have written it with depth and flair. But again: That is easy. Complaining is always easy -- that's why so many people do it. Real change is hard.
College football and basketball players need somebody to organize and galvanize them. They need somebody to change a system that powerful people don't want to change. They need another Marvin Miller.
Miller's success was so great, so overwhelming, that it seems inevitable now. We tend to assume free agency was coming, no matter what he did.
But it sure didn't seem that way at the time. Miller seemed like just another crazy revolutionary in the Vietnam era, a guy who wanted to shake up the American Establishment with no concern for the chaos it might bring. But Miller succeeded while dozens of other revolutionaries failed, because he had talents they didn't have. He was brilliant and calculating, able to use the available tools and legal maneuvers to reach his endgame.
He was not just screaming in the streets. Anybody can do that. He was not just selling the media on whatever he thought folks might buy, either. A lot of lawyers can do that.
Miller believed in his cause, and he knew how to make it happen. Raw anger wouldn't do it. Screaming about injustice wouldn't do it. He was rational and wise. He got players to trust him and each other. That was always the key to the union's success in those early work stoppages. The owners would splinter before the players, and Miller knew it.
The NCAA has spent many years refining its legal arguments for amateurism. One is that college sports are popular BECAUSE players are not paid. (Miller called that "nonsense.") Another is ... well, Miller summed it up:
"The problem," Miller told me, "is that they're not employees. They're students. And therefore they have no rights under the law. And that's where the problem stems from. ... It's such an obvious out for a court. A court that would be pretending to do justice by saying, 'My hands are tied because the law doesn't cover them.' "
Miller thought college athletes should be considered employees. He thought it was pretty clear that schools were bringing in millions of dollars because of the work of these players. But he also understood that players were stuck. The NCAA's rules have been good to a lot of people in the NCAA. Congresspeople are not interested in changing a sports culture that has so many fans.
"They are going to do what they're doing," Miller said of the NCAA. "They will give the players as little as possible and that's that. I don't know what you do about it with a Congress that lets this happen, and one administration after another goes along with it. It's a terrible situation, but I don't see the solution other than a political one."
I asked Miller: If a college athlete approached him hoping to be the next Curt Flood, bringing financial freedoms to college athletes, what would he say?
Miller did not shout. He did not get righteous. He said going through the court system would fail. But a political solution was possible.
It would take private lobbying and public shaming. It would take somebody who could keep the story in the media and convince both the public and politicians that this is a matter of right and wrong. It could be done, though. We just need another Marvin Miller.