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Ski-U-Mah, Local 9
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Ski-U-Mah, Local 9

When you have workers who are required to work without pay, who are denied the ability to bargain for their wages and working conditions, you will inevitably get a union.

To: Mr. Kain Colter
President
College Athletes Players Association
Pittsburgh, PA 15222

Dear Mr. Colter:

Congratulations on your victory before the regional National Labor Relations Board office in Chicago. The regional director ruled that so-called student athletes, at least those who play football at private universities like Northwestern, are employees and, as such, are entitled to vote on a union. In reaching the decision that Northwestern’s scholarship football players should be eligible to form a union, the regional director ruled that so-called scholarship players are not primarily students. This is a conclusion widely shared by just about any real student who attends a large enough university to have “money” players.

And this whole fight is about big money, not education. The current television contract for the new college football playoff system is worth $7.3 billion over 10 years. The current deal to broadcast the men’s basketball tournament alone is worth $10.8 billion over the next 14 years. According to data submitted to the U.S. Department of Education, the 123 schools in the NCAA’s football bowl subdivision turned a $1.3 billion profit in the fiscal year ended June 2013. And while none of this money flows through to the players producing it, it does flow through to the various coaches and assistant coaches in the two money sports. In fact, in states that have big-time Division I football or men’s basketball, the highest-paid public servant in each of those states is usually the men’s football coach. So too in Minnesota.

And it’s not just TV revenue we’re talking about. Sponsorships are everywhere, from named stadia to the official candy partner of the NCAA, Reese’s. The NCAA even sponsored a video football game and sold player jerseys until a class-action lawsuit was filed by former UCLA basketball player Ed O’Bannon, seeking payments to athletes for the use of their likenesses.

The O’Bannon lawsuit is not the only lawsuit causing the NCAA headaches. There are also a number of antitrust lawsuits seeking class-action status, attacking the NCAA’s “cartel”-like behavior prohibiting payment to any players at its member schools. There are a number of head-injury cases alleging negligence on behalf of programs for failing to inform and protect their student athletes from serious brain injury. (“Student athlete” is the phrase used by the NCAA.)

Brain injury is not the only concern of the new student players’ union. In many Division I programs, a student athlete can lose his scholarship for non-performance. When financial aid is cancelled, in many instances the student athlete is forced to withdraw from his education.

Nor is the education necessarily worth paying for in the first place. A common illustration of this phenomenon is the unfolding fiasco at the University of North Carolina. As Paul Barrett has written in Bloomberg Businessweek, the fiasco in Chapel Hill is that football and basketball players were funneled into fake classes that were not only easy, but in fact never existed. The district attorney is looking into charges. But one does not have to look very carefully at the prostitution of the education enterprise that frequently takes place in the monied sports on campus (just Google “Gangelhoff” and “University of Minnesota”).

One of our local sports columnists recently pointed out that the last time the Minnesota Gophers got into the Rose Bowl (1961) was because Ohio State turned down the invitation first. Ohio State rejected the invitation because the faculty senate believed that sending its students to participate in the Rose Bowl would emphasize sports over the educational mission of the university. (The 1961 Gophers team went on to beat UCLA 21-3 in the 1962 Rose Bowl game.)

Not to be outdone, in 1966, the University of Minnesota faculty senate voted to turn down a bid to the NIT basketball tournament because the tournament would take its students away from classes. One does not have to be a college graduate to know that these times have changed, and they have changed because of big money.

Big money means big unions. And because the big money in college sports is a relatively recent phenomenon, there will be other changes in the higher educational institutions that play this game. When you have workers who are required to work without pay, who are denied the ability to bargain for their wages and working conditions, and who are not allowed to be represented by counsel (or agents), you will inevitably get a union.

If we are going to continue to have big money on campus, we will inevitably have unions for players on campus. So it will be true that athletes will get strong by working out, and the union will make them stronger.

Sincerely,

Vance K. Opperman

Yours in Solidarity

Vance K. Opperman (vopperman@keyinvestment.com) is owner and CEO of MSP Communications, which publishes Twin Cities Business.

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