Despite all the NCAA tournament excitement, last week’s biggest sports news was the National Labor Relations Board’s ruling that Northwestern’s football players are legally allowed to unionize. No direct ramifications of the ruling will be felt until the end of an indefinitely long appeal process, but a unionized group of athletes — which could spawn many similar groups — presents a long-term threat to the current business model of college athletics. As it does, the NCAA announced its disagreement with the ruling; then, predictably, it was mocked by people who support change, who were in turn mocked by those who support the status quo, and so forth. (For legal implications of the NLRB’s ruling, I recommend John Infante, Erin Buzuvis and Michael McCann.)
One of the most fundamental problems in college athletics is that students don’t actually have much of a voice in how their programs are run. However it shakes out, the Northwestern players’ unionization efforts have drawn attention to that fact and should ultimately give athletes some power, which is a good thing.
Further, I think it could force universities to commit to one of two models of college athletics. On one hand, schools claim that athletic departments exist to serve students’ college experience, and they receive the legal benefits (tax status) and burdens (Title IX) of an educational institution. On the other hand, athletic departments are largely operated as businesses for engaging alumni, marketing the university and, at the largest schools, generating revenue outright. And as the NLRB found, athletes are treated just like employees — ones without much say in the employee-employer relationship, and with their pay capped at the value of a scholarship.
I think either model of college athletics — as a true student-serving experience, or as a business — can be viable. But universities need to follow one path, instead of cherry-picking the best of both models, and each requires a stronger student voice.
A student-serving approach
What would a truly student-centric approach to college sports look like? Athletics would be treated as a student experience first and a commercial product second. TV contracts and changes in conference affiliation would be considered based on how they affect athletes as much as revenue. NCAA rules that protect the interests of coaches and athletic departments, such as transfer restrictions and renewable scholarships, would be abolished. Coaches and administrators would be accountable to the athletes themselves, not to the fans and viewers who demand wins above all else.
Perhaps more importantly, it would require a less authoritarian approach to coaching. Shouting homophobic slurs at players would be not only unacceptable but unfathomable. Attempts to legislate what players do outside the field of play — for example, forbidding or censoring the use of social media — would be incongruous with a truly student-centric mission. And other team rules, such as curfews or possibly practice times, might involve an open discussion with athletes: If they thought the benefit to the team was worth their personal costs, they would agree to it; if not, they wouldn’t.
It would not require “amateurism”, as currently defined. Nothing about banning outside benefits, in general, improves the student experience. Not only would forming a relationship with an agent not be prohibited, but it would be encouraged, to help students make the best decisions for their future. Athletic departments would be free to make their own decisions about what to do with whatever revenue they made, but at least some of it would probably go to athletes — through some combination of scholarships, paychecks and disbursements — and there would be no national cap on compensation.
Above all, this model would require students to have a strong voice in the direction of college sports. That might or might not be a “union”, per se, but athletes would need some way of holding universities accountable and ensuring that athletic programs are actually serving them appropriately.
A business-centric model
The business-centric model looks much more like the current state of college sports. Universities would manage their athletic departments to maximize exposure and profit, and in general, the best way to do that is by winning. Coaches and athletic directors would be held accountable by fans, who would give more support to winning programs. In this world, there would be a place for rules that protect the product of college sports (competitive and high-quality games) which might include transfer restrictions, renewable scholarships, and flexible game scheduling that might inhibit students’ academic experience.
But crucially, as the key employees in this business model, athletes would have to sign off on these rules. Given the examples in American pro sports and the short working life of college athletes, this is probably best accomplished with a players’ union (or unions). If athletes are happy shuffling their academic schedules to play Tuesday night football games on ESPN, they can choose to do so. Maybe they would accept transfer restrictions, but only in exchange for some other benefit — more resources to protect player safety, perhaps.
And in this model, there would be no pretending that athletes are “amateurs.” They would be under a coach’s control, working substantial hours to help market and generate revenue for the athletic department and university. Athletes would be employees of the athletic department — employees who love their jobs, to be sure, but still employees — like other students who work for their universities in various ways. And as employees, they would be able to negotiate and receive compensation in line with their value to their employer.
I honestly have no idea which path would be better for college sports. The easy emotional reaction is to say, of course, college athletics should be run for the athletes — but I’m not sure the answer is that obvious. As today’s market shows, there is a lot of equity in the current product of college sports, which might be lost in the student-education model. Fans like Tuesday night football games, millions watch made-for-TV conferences, and most alumni want their teams run as if winning is the only goal. Given the vast financial incentives at stake, it might actually be a better outcome for everybody if college athletics — or at least the revenue sports in power conferences — continued to be run as a business, with players compensated accordingly.
Realistically, college athletics has been trending toward professionalization for several decades, and that trend doesn’t appear to be stopping anytime soon. It’s hard to imagine a scenario in which college sports, or at least the most visible subset of them, don’t eventually commit fully to the business-centric model. (Lots of people worry about what the effects of paid players will be, but a true student-centric model, at least as outlined above, brings much more drastic changes.) And if the student experience isn’t the primary goal of college athletics, that’s okay — as long as schools aren’t allowed to pretend otherwise, and as long as players still have some say in how their sports are run.