Leitch: Can College Sports Survive Collective Bargaining?

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Photo: Tom Pennington/2014 Getty Images

On a recent Monday night in Texas, the entire sports world stared at one man, Shabazz Napier, waiting to speak.

They’d paid quite a bit for the privilege. The game, the NCAA college basketball national championship, was played in AT&T Stadium, the $1.2 billion behemoth built by Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones (along with hundreds of thousands of taxpayers), which features one of the largest HDTVs on the planet and, in the upper deck, Earth’s most expensive stripper poles (left vacant for the ­tourney in the name of amateurism, I am sure). Eighty thousand fans watched in person, and 21.2 million watched the game on television—the fourth NCAA championship in a 14-year TV contract worth around $11 billion. Sponsors like Coca-Cola and Capital One ran constant ads on the air and even on the court; they had paid so much they weren’t even called sponsors anymore but “Corporate Champions.” Nike plans to give both Kentucky and Connecticut, the two schools facing off in the title game, more than $60 million so that players wear shoes branded with their swoosh.

In this glittering building made from diamonds and Jim Nantz’s tears, Shabazz Napier took the microphone. His Connecticut Huskies had just won a wildly ­improbable championship—just as improbably, it was the school’s fourth in 15 years—and he had been awarded the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player trophy. Decades of watching sports have taught us what to expect in this moment: clichés about God, and family, and taking it all one game at a time. And why not? No one takes a stand during a moment of universal worship.

But Napier did something different. He addressed the NCAA, the governing body of college athletics that is increasingly looking like a cartel. “I wanna get everybody’s attention right quick,” Napier shouted. “Ladies and gentlemen, you’re looking at the Hungry Huskies … This is what happens when you ban us!” Ostensibly, he was referring to the NCAA’s banning of the Huskies from last year’s tournament for low academic performance. But that’s not all he was doing, particularly with that “Hungry” comment. A couple days before, he had told reporters how he often went to bed “starving” because he couldn’t afford food. “We as student-athletes get utilized for what we do so well, and we’re definitely blessed to get a scholarship to our universities. But at the end of the day, that doesn’t cover everything. We do have hungry nights that we don’t have enough money to get food … It may not have your last name on it, but when you see your jersey getting sold … you feel like you want something in return.”

College athletics are dying. This may seem counter­intuitive, given all this money being thrown around. But the current system—a multi­billion-dollar business built around unpaid labor—is unsustainable.

This has all happened fairly quickly. Historian Taylor Branch’s 2011 Atlantic essay lit the college-athletes-should-be-paid candle, and since then, everything in the sport has been up for grabs. A lawsuit settlement put an end to video games using player likenesses; the NCAA was exposed for selling merchandise searchable by athlete names, and, in the latest and biggest shoe to drop, a National Labor Relations Board director found last month that attempts by Northwestern football players to unionize are allow­ed because athletes are not “student-athletes” to these schools: They’re employees.

The change has happened in part because of changing attitudes about amateurism and in part because of ­continued missteps by the NCAA. But it has mostly been about the money. And for all the money flying around college basketball, it’s college football that is raking in the craziest amounts: ESPN is paying reportedly $5.64 ­billion over 12 years for the upcoming College Football Playoff—six games each season. It is one thing to say that a $50,000 scholarship package is sufficient compensation for players when teams play 11 games a year on local television; it is quite another when the TV contracts are exceeding those of professional sports. The money has turned an abstract argument into a moral one.

The problem is that every fix seems to fundamentally alter things: You just can’t mend college sports without breaking them. At least, we haven’t figured out a way yet, as the recent challenges to the status quo show.

The first existential arrow aimed at college sports was the class-action lawsuit, led by former UCLA basketball player Ed O’Bannon, alleging the NCAA was making money off the images of former college athletes without properly ­compensating them. In pro sports, these kinds of disputes are resolved by collective bargaining between owners and players. But in college sports, collective bargaining is ­impossible, as the NCAA is so devoted to the principle of amateurism that players aren’t allowed to take part-time jobs, no matter how much they need the money, and can get suspended for receiving gifts as small as a pair of sneakers. Which is why it was so radical for those Northwestern football players, led by graduating quarterback Kain Colter, to try to unionize after last season. Their goals were modest: They weren’t seeking pay-for-play but health care extending beyond their years on the field and to have their scholarships guaranteed even in case of injury. But when they won the right to unionize, it opened the door wide open to collective bargaining (and not just for modest negotiations like the Northwestern team was engaging in).

Will collective bargaining help? It’s hard to see how, in part because you can’t negotiate a compensation structure for football players without rearranging a lot of other stuff on college campuses. The NFL and the NBA don’t subsidize other sports, but in college, to hear college presidents tell it anyway, football pays for women’s field hockey and soccer, which in turn allow schools to obey federal Title IX gender-equality laws. The system wasn’t designed to subsidize less popular sports, but it does that now. Would killing those money-losing programs in order to pay the football players count as progress?

Plus, it’s not clear how much unionization can scale, since even programs within the same conference often operate at very different levels—Northwestern is a pathetic moneymaker next to Ohio State and Michigan, for instance, and what qualifies as fair compensation to a Wildcat would likely seem inadequate to a Buckeye. And then there is the cultural hurdle: It’s not even clear the Northwestern football team, having established the right to organize, will actually vote to again this fall; its coach, Pat Fitzgerald, publicly encouraged his players not to.

Whatever the fate of unionization, the one thing the Northwestern decision did do was secure that “employee” label, and that might be the point of no return. The ruling has required the NCAA, ultimately, to decide what it is: a nonprofit regulatory organization or a moneymaking enterprise. If it’s the first, its billions in TV money have to be redistributed; if it’s the second, its rules will have to be dramatically altered. The most likely possibility is that the high-revenue schools could split off from the NCAA. They could set rules that allow players greater compensation and basically turn major college athletics into the biggest free-agent market in sports. (Imagine Scott Boras or Jay Z negotiating with Jim Boeheim.)

It is a travesty that Shabazz Napier goes to bed hungry the night before he makes millions upon millions for a bunch of balding white men. (The NCAA took the food thing so seriously it is now considering a major rule change allowing schools to offer more than three meals a day, something that, astoundingly, they hadn’t been allowed to do before.) This is a system that must be changed. The question is whether it can be without killing it entirely. College athletics very well might be unfixable; you might have to burn down the whole village. After sitting through Jerry Jones’s Final Four, I’ll confess: As much as I love all college sports … I’m ready to light the match.

*This article appeared in the April 21, 2014 issue of New York Magazine.