A few thoughts to jump start your Wednesday morning.
Northwestern’s football players have initiated legal action to form a union for college athletes. To get certified they will have to convince the National Labor Relations Board that they are employees, which won’t be easy considering the number of court decisions that have gone against athletes over the years including ones denying the same kind of medical benefits that are due employees. As long as the courts follow the accepted rule that athletes are not employees, they can’t collect workers comp nor can they form a union.
That won’t stop the Northwestern players from trying and while there is probably a 99% chance the NLRB and the courts will rule against them, the fact that the players are united in their efforts to get their piece of the big pie that television money has created is a significant development. Even if denied the right to unionize, players can still unite and if the movement spreads from school to school, which could happen, it will change the landscape of college sports as we know them for good.
Imagine what would happen if the movement started at Northwestern spread to every school in the Big Ten and all the athletes in all the sports – not just football – said either you start sharing some of the hundreds of millions of dollars raked in from those television contracts or we aren’t playing.
It could happen.
This isn’t a novel idea. The first person that I can remember suggesting something like this was the late Dick DeVenzio, the pint-sized former Duke point guard who was calling for athletes to go on strike way back in the 1970s. DeVenzio wasn’t calling for athletes to go on salary, but he did think that if an athlete puts his body on the line for his school for four years then he should get something beyond room, board, tuition and books.
I talked with DeVenzio back in the 1970s when I was a sports editor at a North Carolina newspaper and covering ACC basketball. I wrote about him during his playing days at Duke when he suffered through three years of Bucky Waters so we were acquaintances although not what I would call friends. Still, it was a good enough relationship that we could engage in a long conversation.
Among the ideas he proposed to me in that conversation:
1. If a player’s eligibility expires and he still doesn’t have his degree he stays on scholarship for as much as two years as long as he (or she) is enrolled in school and working diligently toward finishing school.
2. If a player graduates and is in good standing both academically and with the athletic department the athlete can stay on scholarship while attending two years of graduate school.
3. Give players incentives to take good courses and make good grades such as giving them a check at the end of each semester for each course passed with a good grade. For example, if an athlete passes 12 hours in the fall, at the beginning of the spring semester, the athlete might get a check for $1200. That would take care of a couple of issues: spending and incidental money and it would be incentive to work toward a degree.
4. Give an athlete a bonus check for graduating in four years.
5. This one was pretty radical. Allow each school to recruit a certain number of non-qualifiers each year and let them play. If the athlete plays three or four years and doesn’t graduate, take away one scholarship for a couple of years. If the non-qualifier goes on to graduate, award an extra scholarship. This would give schools incentive to do a better job of graduating players. Schools that take a lot of risks and don’t work hard to graduate players would lose scholarships. Those that do a good job would have extras.
DeVenzio had these ideas 40 years ago. Back in those days, the NCAA and most athletic directors thought of Dick as the second coming of Karl Marx screaming the equivalent of “workers of the world unite!” Compared to some of the proposals that have been tossed around and even discussed at the recent NCAA convention in San Diego, DeVenzio’s ideas don’t seem so radical. In the plan he discussed with me, all the money and incentives were tied to education. The models that were discussed in San Diego were tied to the power conferences, which are picking up enormous checks from the networks, and were about cutting the athletes in on some of the action. I have yet to see a recent proposal that offers rewards for athletes who graduate or gives them incentives to work hard toward earning a degree.
The decision by the Northwestern players to organize is a sign of things to come and it didn’t have to come to this. The NCAA has had its cash cows raking in enormous amounts of money for years and it has held steadfast to the current room, board, tuition and books scholarship model. If the NCAA truly cared about its student-athletes, it would have been moving toward a model that expanded the benefits without breaking the bank while at the same time promoting educational benefits. Instead of taking a pro-active, pro-student athlete role in creating positive change, the NCAA is once again late to the party and anything it does to offer compensation to athletes will be seen as throwing money at the problem instead of finding workable solutions.
MUSIC FOR TODAY
Since such a good portion of the country is dealing with cold, wind, snow and ice today, the music at least has to be warm. This is Joan Osborne backed up by The Funk Brothers performing the old Martha Reeves and the Vandellas hit “(Love Is Like a) Heat Wave.” It’s among the cool tracks on Joan’s “Breakfast in Bed” album. Stay warm today!