Friday, March 28, 2014

a union of none

I’ll come clean to start: I think all colleges and universities should do away with scholarships for athletes. I also despise the NCAA. 

The recent talk about the Northwestern football players unionizing is interesting on a number of levels. First, it appears that the adjudicating NLRB court for the Chicago area determined that since the players are paid (read: scholarships) they are considered employees and now have the right to unionize. That unionization leads to negotiating contracts, pay, and working conditions for players. Assuming this idea carries forward, where do both the players and universities end up? Well, if I’m a university I can simply withdraw all athletic scholarships – and the included training facilities, supplied food, provided housing, etc., and then enter into negotiations with the union. As a university overlord I can come to some pay structure and then the athletes can pay for each piece of football pie: training, food, housing, physio, travel, money to eat on the road, hotels, uniform rental, etc. As a player, what are you getting in the deal right now? You are getting the training required in order for you move forward in what is most likely your chosen profession (even if you are dreaming way too big…). In order to do that training the university is providing you with at least three years (football) of tuition (whether or not you attend), room, board (at BCS schools probably a private dining facility), travel expenses, per diem when travelling, private physio facilities and trainers, uniforms, etc. Excluding private BCS schools, my back-of-the-envelope calculations say that you’re getting (being paid) somewhere around 60k per year to be trained; over three years we’ll call it about $200,000. (This number assumes a BCS-level, state school, with players coming from outside the state.) Not bad, right? Go to the first half of this paragraph – I’ll pay you $65,000 per year to play here – and you then pay for the training, just like every other student at the university (barring academic studs).

Second, and I call this the “Reggie Bush” syndrome, is the idea that somehow a player is more than the university. Until very recently I couldn’t come up with an example of a player that made or created a big money NCAA football program – lately, Johnny Manziel made me think he may the one, but honestly, Texas A&M was a Big 12 program and had already moved to the SEC by the time he showed up, so even he doesn’t count. Reggie Bush felt that USC was making oodles of money from his likeness, or his jersey. This is a hollow argument – USC was a massive program before Bush showed up, it is a massive program after his departure. The horse is USC; Bush is a wagon. Nobody was knocking down the door for Reggie Bush jerseys prior to his star turn at USC.  Even for superstars, they aren’t making the university money, the university is the already created monster that they simply ride.

Last, and most importantly, athletic departments don’t make money. There are loads of sites that cover reported expenses and incomes, but beyond a small percentage of universities, athletics is a financial loser. Here’s a link to a shortish report from economists at Holy Cross that addresses the issue – even big-time football and basketball programs lose money. Sure, this is three years old, but the ideas haven’t changed.  

I don’t know where this will end up. The NCAA can go away for all I care. Universities can drop athletic scholarships. The can drop athletics for all I care. It’ll be fun to watch.

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