Wednesday, March 26, 2014

And Boom

This just happened:
In a historic ruling Wednesday afternoon, the Chicago regional office of the National Labor Relations Board ruled that Northwestern football players meet the standards under federal guidelines to form a union.  The initial petition was filed by the National College Players Association on behalf of former Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter and the College Athletes Players Association (CAPA), and had the backing of the United Steelworkers union.

The NLRB ruled essentially what CAPA had argued in stating its case: football players are employees of the university.

Well, duh.

Student athlete? A marketing term, essentially, for the purposes of winning worker compensation claims:
...the origins of "student-athlete" lie not in a disinterested ideal but in a sophistic formulation designed, as the sports economist Andrew Zimbalist has written, to help the NCAA in its "fight against workers' compensation insurance claims for injured football players."

"We crafted the term student-athlete," Walter Byers himself wrote, "and soon it was embedded in all NCAA rules and interpretations." The term came into play in the 1950s, when the widow of Ray Dennison, who had died from a head injury received while playing football in Colorado for the Fort Lewis A&M Aggies, filed for workers'-compensation death benefits. Did his football scholarship make the fatal collision a "work-related" accident? Was he a school employee, like his peers who worked part-time as teaching assistants and bookstore cashiers? Or was he a fluke victim of extracurricular pursuits? Given the hundreds of incapacitating injuries to college athletes each year, the answers to these questions had enormous consequences. Critically, the NCAA position was determined only by its member institutions—the colleges and universities, plus their athletic conferences—as students themselves have never possessed NCAA representation or a vote. Practical interest turned the NCAA vigorously against Dennison, and the Supreme Court of Colorado ultimately agreed with the school's contention that he was not eligible for benefits, since the college was "not in the football business."

Byers, you might be interested to know, came to regret his involvement and wrote a book denouncing the NCAA: Unsportsmanlike Conduct: Exploiting College Athletes.

This is a seismic moment in the history of the NCAA, or perhaps its death knell. I doubt that anyone will mourn its passing.

It's going to be messy as hell. More fair is almost always more complex and disruptive than less fair, at least when less fair is the status quo. There is no question, though, that this is long overdue. In an era where the highest-paid public employee in many states is a college football coach, it was also inevitable.

Messy as hell will be very interesting in this case, though. An organization that steadfastly resisted change for decades--hey, a bunch of old white men, what a surprise--is now going to get turned inside out.  Popcorn for everyone!

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