Workers' Comp

April 07, 2014

This week, college basketball players will miss two days of class so that the NCAA can put the athlete in student-athlete. There are no Final Four games on Thursday and Friday, but there are open practices and media sessions, all so the NCAA can hype its multibillion-dollar educational event.

It's not just playing basketball that takes precedence over schoolwork. Hyping basketball takes precedence over schoolwork.

Because of the tournament, Michigan State players missed six of nine class days, and they would likely have missed four more if they had made it to the title game. That would total 10 missed class days out of 15, for those scoring at home.

"Have they taken a class in the last month?" asks Michigan State law professor emeritus Robert McCormick. "How could they? They've been in Spokane and New York City. They can't possibly be in class. The idea that these guys are primarily students is farcical."

In 2006 McCormick and his wife, Amy, also a professor emeritus, wrote a paper in the Washington Law Review called, "The Myth of the Student-Athlete: The College Athlete as Employee." On March 26, they received a belated A-plus from a regional office of the National Labor Relations Board, which ruled that scholarship football players at Northwestern are indeed employees. As employees they have the right to unionize.

The ruling covers athletes only at private universities. It is also subject to appeal, and this could go down complicated legal paths, which I will explain to you the next time you can't sleep. In the meantime, the argument is straightforward: College athletes sign contracts—i.e., scholarships—that require them to do specific work (training, practice, competition) in exchange for specific compensation (tuition, room and board) for a one-year period, renewable by the university. That is an employment agreement anywhere else in America.

When Florida cut down the nets at the South Regional last week, the Gators wore commemorative T-shirts and hats that were immediately available on the school's merchandising site. For that, the NCAA deserves four credits in economics and a failing grade in philosophy. How much longer can NCAA officials claim that this is about education, when almost every move they make is about commerce?

Young men (and women) playing basketball for money is not so terrible. We only see this as scandalous because the NCAA has told us it is for 100 years. Still, it's far down the slope from here to pay-for-play. If Northwestern players unionize, they are unlikely to insist on getting a salary; that would make them ineligible by NCAA rules, and unions do not like employees losing jobs. Instead the union would probably negotiate for better hours, improved health care, more vacation—all the things that most employees want.

Every Division I school has a few professors who wear noise-canceling headphones under a pile of blankets whenever the campus celebrates a big win. McCormick was never one of them. When Michigan State slid past Virginia last Friday in the Sweet 16, he jumped up and down in his living room.

"I don't have any kind of moral position on this," he says. "My legal training leads me to believe they are employees. As an employee, you are entitled to lots of rights in America."

This is a simple concept, but to be fair, so is the idea of treating college students like students. In fact, McCormick thinks that's the only way that the NCAA can win this battle: "Loosen control and make it more like [players] are in college to advance their academic interests."

That could mean limiting games to weekends, cutting down on travel, letting players skip practice to study, getting rid of transfer restrictions or even eliminating recruiting. It would radically change college sports and drastically reduce the NCAA's revenue. I suspect, when it comes to that, the NCAA will just admit these people are employees and negotiate with them. It will be a business decision.

How much longer can NCAA officials claim this is about education when almost every move they make is about commerce?

What rights should college athletes have?

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PHOTOCARLOS M. SAAVEDRA FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED ILLUSTRATION

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)