Facing punitive rules and stingy compensation, college players are organizing. Is a union in their future?
With college basketball’s March Madness approaching, commentators will soon regale us with tales of underdogs, upsets and last second heroics. But few will mention the moment, 17 years ago, when a group of players planned to stop the games.
Rigo Núñez, a reserve on the 1995 University of Massachusetts basketball team, says more than 20 players from several teams attempted to organize an action to halt March Madness. The plan was that the players would show up on the court, in full uniform, and refuse to play ball. The goal, says Núñez, was to “paralyze the whole NCAA.” William Friday, who co-chaired the Knight Commission on College Athletics at the time, recalled to the Atlantic the time he was warned about a planned March Madness strike.
Those plans fell apart. Friday says the plan he was warned about centered on a certain team, and that team lost prior to reaching the Final Four. Núñez says the culprit was fear of retaliation. “The fear of being blackballed overcame the ‘rah rah’ emotion … No one went on to actually pull the trigger.”
But in the 17 years since that strike plan fizzled, there’s been little change in the conditions that fueled players’ unrest. And, with the backing of a major union, there are still players organizing to do something about it.
For decades, the NCAA has held that the players we watch in January’s college football championship, or this month’s March Madness, are “student-athletes,” part of a tradition older than the United States. The “Principle of Amateurism,” according to the NCAA’s Division I Manual, dictates that the participation of “student-athletes” is “an avocation, and student-athletes should be protected from exploitation by professional and commercial enterprises.” But the enforcement of the amateur ideal has left some players questioning whether the association really has their best interests at heart. (The NCAA declined Salon’s request for comment.)
Former UCLA power forward James Keefe, who played in the Final Four in 2007 and 2008, says that while it was “a great opportunity … at the same time, it’s just amazing how much money’s being made, and how little of that has trickled down to what I think the athletes need.” Keefe recalls “players that were having a lot of trouble making ends meet,” and athletes disciplined for infractions as small as accepting a free sandwich from a fan. Since graduating in 2010, Keefe has been playing professional basketball in Spain and Japan.
“I don’t think that student-athletes should be able to be exploited in the way that they are,” says Anthony Mosely, who just finished his last season as a cornerback at the University of Kentucky and hopes to be drafted into the NFL in May. Mosely describes athletes anxiously waiting for federal financial aid checks to help close the gap between their stipends and their expenses. “You become really dependent on, ‘Is it going to come on this Tuesday or this Tuesday?’” says Mosely, because that federal assistance could determine “whether you can get insurance” or “whether you can pay rent.” While Mosely stressed over his expenses, his university sold apparel with his number. “It might not be my name on the back of the jersey, but if it’s a Number 14 Kentucky jersey, they obviously are wearing that jersey for me … ” says Mosely. “That is a little bit of exploitation. You can buy a jersey with my number on it … the school can potentially profit off of it, and the student athlete doesn’t.”
A sweeping essay by civil rights historian Taylor Branch, published in the Atlantic in October, offers a parade of such ironies. While the NCAA investigated quarterback Cam Newton over allegations that his father had sought “recruiting fees” from Mississippi State, Auburn University was cashing in on 15 corporate logos Newton wore from head to toe. Despite an initial legal victory against the NCAA, pitcher Andrew Oliver agreed to a cheap settlement to escape insurmountable legal expenses – all in a struggle over the NCAA’s principle that letting lawyers negotiate for players would ruin student-athletes’ innocence. (As then-NCAA Executive Director Walter Byers described in his memoir, the NCAA “crafted the term ‘student-athlete’” in the 1950s, in response to “the dreaded notion that NCAA athletes could be identified as employees by state industrial commissions and the courts.” As Branch recounts, “Student-athlete” serves as a shield against Workers’ Compensation claims.)
Two years after 1995’s aborted strike effort, then-linebacker Ramogi Huna faced another NCAA irony. His teammate, All-American linebacker Donnie Edwards, mentioned in a radio interview that he was having trouble supporting himself on his scholarship. In response, an anonymous donor sent a bag of groceries to Edwards’ door. That year the university was making money selling jerseys with Edwards’ number. But the NCAA suspended Edwards for accepting the groceries. “We were all pretty ups … ,” says Huna. “It was something we could all relate to.” Huna says that after eating five or six meals a day as a high school athlete, he had struggled to keep his weight up in college. “I had lost 15 pounds my freshman year.” In response to the Edwards episode, Huna formed the National College Players Association (NCPA).
Since the early days of the NCPA, the United Steel Workers (USW) union has provided it with organizing advice, legal assistance and fundraising help – including organizing fundraising events with supportive NBA players. Tim Waters, now the National Political Director for the USW, says the union was driven to get involved after hearing from college players about what they called “volun-datory” workouts – so called because they were technically voluntary but players felt their coaches expected them to attend. To maintain the legal fiction that these workouts were optional, NCAA rules barred the presence of medical staff for emergencies. In 2001, two players died following such workouts. While “volun-datory” workouts continue, Waters credits NCPA pressure with ending the prohibition on emergency medical staff.
Where the money is
College sports is a big business. In October, Huma and Drexel University Sport Management Professor Ellen Staurowsky released a study calculating that new TV contracts negotiated since 2007 will bring $1.8 billion in annual revenue to the NCAA and five major athletic conferences. With the Big East TV contract up for renegotiation next year, there’s more on the way. As for the “student-athletes” who make it possible, they’re compensated with scholarships. Until November, schools were barred from providing any additional compensation; now some athletes can receive stipends up to $2,000.
The NCAA still bans athletes from accepting promotional deals or many forms of gifts or outside employment – but specifically allows athletes to receive welfare or food stamps. Up until last fall, it also barred universities from signing student-athletes for more than one year; one-year contracts leave athletes’ status, as players and as students, perpetually precarious. But the NCAA does not require universities to cover all medical costs from athletic injuries, or to aggressively tackle four-year graduation rates that on some teams fall below 50 percent.
This past fall, hundreds of Division I college athletes at five schools – including every member of UCLA’s basketball team and most of its football team – signed an NCPA petition to the NCAA calling for a set of reforms: using new TV revenues to improve compensation and create an “educational lockbox” that would reward players who graduate; allowing multi-year scholarships; and establishing that athletic injuries should not end athletes’ scholarships or leave them paying for their own medical treatment. Jeff Locke, a punter who’s played football at UCLA for three seasons, says he was able to sign up most of his team despite players’ fears. “The schools and the NCAA have most of the power in the relationship,” says Locke, making players “afraid of the backlash.”
In a forthcoming Buffalo Law Review article, Nick Fram and Thomas Frampton argue that many of these players have another avenue open to them: unionization. Most NCAA teams are at public universities, where unionization efforts would fall under the jurisdiction of state labor boards, not the National Labor Relations Board. While some state laws are to the right of the NLRB (some even ban public sector union recognition), others have been more pro-union than the federal agency. Fram and Frampton cite the example of university graduate students who receive stipends while serving as teaching assistants or researchers. The NLRB didn’t recognize them as workers until 2000, and in 2004 Bush NLRB appointees took that recognition away. Meanwhile, their counterparts at public universities have had union recognition in many states for decades.
Reviewing laws and court precedents, Fram and Frampton identify 14 states – including California, New York and Florida – where Division I athletes, if they filed for a union election, would have a strong legal case to get one. Frampton tells Salon that if those states “were to follow their own law, and to follow the precedent they’ve established in other student employment cases, the case is incredibly compelling, and in some states overwhelming.” Any students who did so could expect a wave of arguments familiar to many other workers who’ve sought union recognition: You’re lucky to have that job (NBA players); what you do isn’t really work (home care workers); union rules would ruin your work (nurses); negotiating with you would ruin our business model (all of the above, and more).
But Keefe, Locke and Mosely aren’t buying it.
“I don’t see how you can really describe it as anything but a job being an athlete,” says Locke. “You work the equivalent hours … you get paid in the form of a scholarship.”
They have a range of views on unionization, but all three see what they do as work. Locke says he’d like a union but wouldn’t be willing to go on strike or boycott to win one, and he doesn’t see how the NCAA would accept one otherwise. Mosely says he first wants to see how much the NCPA can achieve through its current strategy, but unionization should be on the table. “A union could be awesome,” saw Keefe. “That’s what we really need.” In a 2008 study by the NCAA, the majority of football players reported spending more than six hours a day on sports during the season. Even in the off-season, says Keefe, “guys are busting their butt four hours a day, five hours a day.”
As Fram and Frampton note, these players meet the standards many state courts use to judge employment. They work more than full-time hours in season, and part-time hours for the rest of the year (players continue workouts even on vacation). That work is loosely linked at best to their academics, and players say it often detracts from it. They’re compensated for their work. They pay taxes on their compensation. Their work is directed by others, often to minute detail.
“We see a level of control that exceeds that in almost any other workplace,” says Frampton. “whether it’s the long hours that athletes are expected to work, or broader issues like what happens off the field in their personal time, what they put in their body, what they don’t put in their body.” “When a coach says do something, you need to do it,” says Huma. “That’s how you get paid.”
NCPA is not pursuing unionization at this point. Huma says that if a group of players asked for help winning union recognition, he would have to take the issue to the NCPA board. But he says the players are absolutely workers. “It should be an open and shut case.”
The USW’s Waters says a just resolution may not involve union recognition, but should include a role for players in the NCAA’s decision-making process. “We haven’t been able to change the process yet,” says Waters, “but we’re in this for the long haul.”
“Giving the players more of a voice is one of the biggest things I’m an advocate for in this whole process,” says Locke, “and having a union would be the biggest way” to do it. “If players were able to organize better” and “weren’t so afraid of the NCAA and the repercussions on them,” he adds, “I think a union would be possible.”
Branch’s essay argues that court challenges and questions from the Justice Department may pose an existential threat to the student-athlete paradigm, making some form of change inevitable. Rather than corrupting “amateurism,” Fram and Frampton argue, unionization offers a path to preserve its best aspects: protecting the league from legal crisis while providing players a forum to defend their academic pursuits and their physical and emotional health. But for administrators to sit across the table from athletes as equals would upend one of the NCAA’s longest-held convictions: that the grownups know what’s best for the kids who make them rich.
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