Amateur Athletics and the Long Dead American Labor Movement

There is an important commentary on the state of relations between the young men who play college football and the National Collegiate Athletics Association, and if it feels like we're about to go back in time and talk about unions and rights and bargaining, you would be correct. We're about to take a trip back to when there actually was an American labor movement and when there actually were people who wanted to form unions in order to receive better compensation from the companies they worked for.

What's substituted is important--the university, bound by NCAA rules--is the company and the football player (and I suppose this will extend to all sports, whether they are played by males or females or both) is the employee or worker.

The worker has been exploited by the company. If this isn't reminiscent of the coal miners or the railroad workers, it will be because the exploitation of college football players rivals that of any other exploitative arrangement in American history.

Public and private universities make billions in profits from the sports played by young men and women, but, primarily, by men. They make money hand over fist. In short, they get some of the most valuable "profit" imaginable for almost exactly nothing paid to the players, also known as the workers. They do get room and board, and they do get free tuition, but those prices and those values are inflated because not every student athlete gets a scholarship and not every kid gets to compete fairly for those benefits. They can disappear with relatively no due process and if a kid destroys their body, their ability to recoup their losses is minimal at best.

The NCAA would love to continue this arrangement because they are wringing massive profits out of a constantly regenerating workforce. Every four years, a kid leaves school and is replaced by the next kid up the totem pole. There is, literally, an endless supply of free labor to exploit and the NCAA's members have tapped a seam of coal that will never run out.

And now, a handful of these young men have decided to stand up for the rights and demand some compensation for their labor. But wait! Unions are bad, unions are wrong, and unions are what communists used to defeat 'Murica.

Which is all bullshit. But it doesn't change the facts:

What you see, right there, is someone who talks about college basketball on television -- and also played college basketball when Bill Clinton was President -- being corrected by someone who played football at the University of Missouri just a few years ago. Moe, for his part, is not sure that "a union is the way to handle it" where this particular issue is concerned, which is not surprising. Most people, after more than a generation of effectively un-rebutted anti-labor noise, don't really know what unions do, but suspect that it is generally bad and broadly anti-competitive and faintly communistic.

That is why the NCAA is attempting to leverage popular distrust of unions as a way of wriggling out of the obligations created by the NLRB ruling. What that ruling found, in effect, is that college football players were effectively employees of the schools in which they're enrolled. This is because the players spend some 50 hours a week on football-related activities, are expected to conform to extraordinary restrictions such as draconian speech and conduct codes and otherwise adhere to standards that do not apply to other students.

The crux of it, which very few are eager to dispute beyond legalisms and Herculean feats of blinkered sentimentality, is that student-athletes are held to a significantly different standard than student non-athletes, to the point where they become something less like students and something more like employees who are compensated for their work with (highly contingent and incomplete) tuition reimbursement.

The mere fact that you have a college kid in 2014 saying that unions are "communistic" takes us back to the 1950s and the beginning of the assault on labor unions in this country. By the Reagan years, this rhetoric had all but crippled the powerful unions that allowed a significant number of Americans the chance to work and earn a living.

Here's what the NCAA wants to fight against:

The nascent union at Northwestern wants to be able to bargain as employees, and its goals are almost poignantly modest. Not annual salaries or performance bonuses or training table room service, but enhanced concussion protocols, a dedicated fund to help players earn their degrees and financial assistance for ex-players who suffered injuries while playing/working with the team. (As employees, they would also have rights under Illinois' worker's comp laws, although that would require a separate ruling.) This is all patently and intentionally not extreme.

Can I just say, WTF? Every single American worker ought to have their own version of these rights, especially people who actually, you know, have to sacrifice their bodies while working.

My money is on the NCAA, however. This county simply cannot tolerate the idea that the working poor have any rights. I am optimistic that we will get there as a society, but I'm concerned that the NCAA's deep pockets will reveal a legal strategy that will crush this rather "nascent" movement.

And, as with any discussion about sports and athletics, actually educating people is the last thing on anyone's minds, except now that it is a part of the idea of unionizing players and giving them some rights as far as completing the education. That one insistence legitimizes their efforts and puts the NCAA's fight against them to shame.

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