The greed that has overtaken college “amateur” sports has lead to a monumental decision yesterday in which Northwestern University football players have won the right to unionize as employees of the university. This controversial decision today really shouldn’t be looked at as controversial at all when you think about it, as the biggest benefactors of college sports in recent years have been the administrators and coaches who have used student athletes to earn them their lucrative contracts. Whether you think student athletes should be formally “paid” (in the way the rest of us are – with actual money), many people feel the current model is antiquated and unfair when college coaches see their salaries balloon while the student athletes (the ones who make them their money) merely receive the ability to take free or reduced priced classes.
Perhaps Equity theory helps explain why the unjust has reached a “tipping point.” Basically the student athletes have gotten to the point where they feel the pay coaches and administrators are making is unjust compared to what student athletes are “paid” in the way of reduced-fee classes.
This lawsuit would have never came to the table, however, if the NCAA and member schools would have more responsibly controlled the money being made in college sports in recent years. Rarely, if ever, do colleges use athletic earnings to increase scholarships, pay professors and staff better, or invest in state-of-the-art academic resources on campus, but all of them have continued to pay coaches and administrators astronomical amounts of money, often more than the very presidents leading their universities! While college football facilities are modernized to the point where they are nicer than pro football facilities, most college academic departments struggle to simply have their basic technology needs met.
I have encouraged student athletes for years to unionize, as it simply isn’t fair (Equity theory) that they continue to devote their blood, sweat, and tears to winning games while their coaches and administrators reap unprecedented amounts of money from their efforts. The “free education” trade simply doesn’t stand up anymore, especially when “free classes” often result in elective classes and dummy majors simply to keep student athletes eligible. There’s a reason why college coaches rarely get bonuses for graduation rates, but almost always earn longer and more lucrative contracts for winning games.
College sport administrators have dug this hole
Again, I believe college sports have created this mess and have only themselves to blame. In fact, just this week Ohio State Athletic Director Gene Smith was reported to make $18,000 for having one of the Ohio State wrestlers win an NCAA national title. When pay incentives are directly linked to individual athlete success, countless concerns around integrity begin to cloud the “amateur” sports model and can quickly corrupt programs.
If you believe in freedom and capitalism (which is often the argument for major college coaches now regularly making 7 figures), then you should apply that same line of thinking and applaud student athletes for developing a movement to help them enjoy these same liberties. College athletics have lagged behind for years in “making things right,” and have consistently held their ground that while they all get significantly richer, student athletes should be thrilled to receive free or reduced priced classes. Notice how student athletes have never been offered the perceived value of those classes in the form of a check, something increasingly more student athletes would opt to choose.
Getting back to sanity
My greatest hope in this, actually, has more to do with colleges one day re-aligning their priorities and mission statements back to what colleges have always been in America — institutions of higher learning first, and everything else second. If this unionization movement helps colleges realize that paying football coaches 4, 5, and 6 times the amount as college presidents has completely compromised what colleges are supposedly about (not to mention how much better paid coaches are than professors, the ones on the front line actually delivering the education), then maybe a new model will emerge where the profits from athletics will be more fairly distributed amongst student scholarships, better campus facilities, increased salaries for professors and staff, and improved campus resources. If this occurs you will immediately see a decline in lapses of judgement and poor integrity that if often associated with coaches and administrators doing all that they can to keep student athletes eligible, win games, and profit financially.
The current battle to unionize will hopefully prompt more level-headed thinking and the first step in “de-profesionalizing” college sports. The greed, corruption, and profiting from student athletes at all costs will eventually catch up with college sports, and this may be the first big step in that direction.