When Wisconsin played in the Final Four earlier this month, the magnitude of the event was apparent in so many ways.
One was the sheer size of the building. In another blatant act of greed and hypocrisy, the NCAA stuffed almost 80,000 people inside an outlandish football stadium, raking in millions on the backs on players who are not compensated beyond a scholarship that, in many cases, doesn’t cover the full cost of attending the universities that greatly profit from their skills.
And if one of the players happened to get hurt and the injury lingered after their eligibility expired, well, good luck there, too.
Finally, the NCAA is being challenged on a number of fronts to reform the system and cede leverage to the players who help make possible the multibillion-dollar industry that is big-time college athletics.
Change is going to come. The only question is by what means.
Last month, the Chicago district of the National Labor Relations Board correctly ruled that Northwestern football players qualify as employees of the university and therefore have the right to unionize. If the university appeal fails, the players will vote April 25 on whether to have their interests protected by a union.
The guess here is the union movement would have negligible effect. Unions couldn’t spread to big state schools such as Wisconsin, only to a handful private universities that play football at the highest level.
I’m all for some kind of watchdog entity protecting players from coaches who would control too much of their lives. The Northwestern players are asking for better health coverage, full-cost scholarships and the possibility of being paid, all reasonable requests against the millions they bring in. That said, the idea of a union inside a college locker room just doesn’t seem constructive.
The NCAA has much more to worry about with the O’Bannon case, a potential game-changer to be heard in federal court on June 9. Filed by former UCLA basketball player Ed O’Bannon and joined by Hall of Famer Oscar Robertson and 18 other plaintiffs, the suit argues that upon graduation, former players should become entitled to financial compensation for future commercial uses of their images by the NCAA.
Millions, and maybe billions, are at stake in that game.
Meanwhile, former West Virginia running back Shawne Alston has brought a class action suit against the NCAA and five equity conferences over restraint of trade. It’s hard to argue that his case, which claims scholarships do not cover the full cost of going to school, is wrong.
Again, we’re talking about millions, even billions.
College players’ rights got a lot of publicity during the Final Four in North Texas, where Connecticut star Shabazz Napier claimed that he sometimes went to bed hungry while his basketball-factory school cranked out national titles. His words were mitigated by the fact that players are eligible for all-you-can-eat meal plans in-season, but it was Napier’s comments about the NCAA heavily profiting on the players that made most sense.
A recent poll indicated that about two-thirds of college athletics fans believe that a scholarship is compensation enough, a status-quo position that would not challenge the system they enjoy. Doing right by the players would cause serious change to the point that Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany said scaling back revenue sports to a sort of Ivy League level would be the preferable alternative to an unfavorable outcome in the courtroom.
In fact, cutting back wouldn’t be a bad idea. It got to this point with massive TV contracts, colossal building projects, fat-cat athletic directors earning bonuses when wrestlers won tournaments and coaches doing anything to protect multimillion-dollar contracts.
Suddenly, big-time college sports took on an NFL-like image, culminating with the 2014 Final Four being played out in Jerry Jones’ palace of excess. Really, could any of the players have been faulted for looking around that place and wondering about their cut?
They needn’t worry. In one form or another, their time is coming.