Not Primarily Students, Not Really Amateurs

A labor ruling knocks the wind out of the fantasy of the amateur athlete. The Raiderettes sue. And we’re heading towards another baseball strike.


For some reason I kept running into stories about sports and labor this week. The big one was that Northwestern University’s football players are a step closer to unionizing. A ruling by National Labor Relations Board regional director Peter Sung Ohr says:

In sum, based on the entire record in this case, I find that [Northwestern University]’s football players who receive scholarships fall squarely within the [National Labor Relations] Act’s broad definition of “employee” when one considers the common law definition of “employee.”

Previous rulings (against graduate-student teaching and research assistants unionizing at Brown in 2004) don’t apply because the football players “are not primarily students”. Northwestern says it will appeal to the full NLRB, and from there I’d be surprised if the courts didn’t get involved. This probably won’t be resolved for years.

Citizen Kain

It sounds weird to think of “amateur” athletes organizing. But it’s hard to argue with the claim that a college football player is there to play football, not to be a student. When I was a teaching assistant at the University of Chicago in the 1980s, I had come there to be a graduate student and was teaching to defray the cost. But football players come to Northwestern to play football, and take classes primarily to maintain their football eligibility.

To me, the players don’t resemble amateurs as much as interns. They work very hard in a business that makes an enormous profit, but pays them no salary. Many submit to this deal because they’re building a resume towards a salary-paying job they hope to get later in the NFL. Most of them won’t get that job.

The best thing I saw on the issue was a clip from ESPN’s Outside the Lines, which focused on the ringleader of the unionization movement, Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter. (Colter exhausted his NCAA eligibility this season, and is hoping to catch on with the NFL as a receiver. CBS Sports rates Colter as the 48th best receiver in the draft, or the 393rd best overall prospect. In other words, his goal of playing in the NFL is improbable but not completely absurd.) (Northwestern is fighting this, but I’d put Colter on the cover of my pamphlet: Northwestern shapes leaders who change the world.)

OTL traces Colter’s radicalization to the experience of his uncle, former All-American defensive back Cleveland Colter, who injured his knee in his junior year and was never drafted by the NFL. Cleveland continues to have knee issues to this day, but his medical coverage from USC ended with his playing career. This is not uncommon: A player never does make money from football, but has lifelong expenses related to the wear-and-tear on his body.

Meanwhile, the NCAA and the school can market the player’s name and image, but the player can’t. (Quarterback Johnny Manziel was suspended for half a game this season on the charge that he signed football memorabilia for money.) This system is being challenged in court by former UCLA basketball star Ed O’Bannon.

Often the player doesn’t even get a degree. In that respect, Northwestern behaves better than most universities. BleacherReport says it has the highest graduation rate: 97%, compared to 47% at third-worst Oklahoma. But even at Northwestern, the time commitment of football prevents athletes from receiving the kind of education Northwestern offers its typical student. (The findings in Ohr’s ruling indicate that football is the first commitment of a scholarship athlete; he can only take classes that don’t conflict with football practice.)

ESPN’s Jay Bilas comments on the claims that recognizing players’ rights would kill NCAA sports:

It’s amazing how the rest of us can operate in a free-market system and the world doesn’t spin off its axis, but if athletes got it, boy we’d be in trouble. … People who support the NCAA structure as is, including some politicians, say it’s going to change fundamentally, all those [non-revenue-generating] sports are going to go away, we’re just going to have football and basketball. That’s a doomsday scenario scare tactic, and really it’s shameful because it’s just not true. … But even if it were, we lay all the responsibility on the athlete: If those greedy athletes who may ask for more than a scholarship were to get what they want, all this would go away. We don’t say that about coaches who are making $8 million a year. And we don’t say that about administrators who are making millions. … Nobody says, “Hey, the wrestling program’s going to go away if we pay you this much money.”


U-N-I-O-N

Meanwhile, the Raiderettes could use a union (though they probably won’t get one), because the Oakland Raiders aren’t treating their cheerleaders very well. Several sued the team in January, charging that their $1250 annual salary works out to less than $5 an hour even before hair-and-make-up expenses (which the team demands but doesn’t pay for), and that they are subject to “fines” for offenses like bringing the wrong pom-poms to practice.

Forbes has estimated the value of the Raiders at $825 million. They made $19.1 million in 2012, which is low compared to most NFL teams.


And expect a baseball strike when the current contract with the players’ union expires after the 2015 season. As stupendous as those nine-figure superstar contracts sound, the players as a whole are making an ever-smaller percentage of the league’s revenues; 40% at last count. That’s down from 56% in 2002 and still falling. Hardball Times writes:

Most other major sports leagues have salaries close to half of league revenues, and baseball players were actually doing slightly better than until the last 10 years, when suddenly they started getting a smaller share.

Expect the union to want to turn this situation around, while baseball owners have consistently been the most pig-headed owners of any major league sport. If we lose less than the whole 2016 season, I’ll be surprised.

And revenue is only part of the story of a baseball franchise. As a capital asset, a major league baseball team has been one of the best investments around. After all, it’s a collectors item, one of a limited edition of 30. And Nate Silver points out one of the consequences of rising inequality: As the rich get richer, more people can afford to bid on a baseball team.

Denouncing overpaid players is a crowd-pleasing tactic, but at least the players do something for their money. What exactly do the owners add to the game? They have become the private custodians of a city’s civic pride, and they collect a massive rent on that. They profit from an antitrust exemption that allows them to limit their competition and to decide which cities can and can’t have major-league teams. (If you started a new team, the major league teams would refuse to schedule games with you at any price, which in every other industry would be an illegal restraint of trade.) Most of the teams’ wealth was actually created by government, not by their owners’ entrepreneurial creativity.

Do the owners provide any value for their billions? Back in 1979, Allan Jacobs published a story in Harper’s,The Civil-Service Giants“, in which San Francisco took over its baseball team under eminent domain. It was intended to be humorous, but if such a takeover really happened, if every team wound up being owned by its city, who would know the difference?

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  • By The Monday Morning Teaser | The Weekly Sift on March 31, 2014 at 9:21 am

    […] Another article will talk about recent labor developments in sports, especially the surprising ruling that Northwestern’s football players are employees who have the right to form a union. Also worth knowing about: the lawsuit the Raiderette cheerleaders have filed against the Oakland Raiders, and why there’s likely to be another baseball strike in 2016. (Due to a screw-up on my part — I thought I posted the teaser hours ago — this is already up.) […]

  • By Fiendishly Rational | The Weekly Sift on March 31, 2014 at 12:16 pm

    […] This week’s featured articles are “Slavery Lasted Until Pearl Harbor” and “Not Primarily Students, Not Really Amateurs“. […]

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