Collective bargaining no slam dunk for athletes

The News TribuneApril 1, 2014 

In this Sept. 21, 2013, file photo, Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter wears APU for "All Players United" on wrist tape as he scores a touchdown during an NCAA college football game against Maine in Evanston, Ill.

NAM Y. HUH — AP

For old times’ sake, could we cling to at least a vestige of the idea that college athletics have something to do with amateurism and education?

Not about major league-style players’ unions and not — though this may be a lost cause — about exploiting jocks who really don’t belong in college at all.

What’s left of the amateurism was challenged by last week’s National Labor Relations Board ruling out of Chicago that would — if held up in the inevitable court battle — give scholarship football players at Northwestern University the right to unionize. The NLRB’s Peter Sung Ohr sees little difference between the athletes — whose primary reason for being on campus is to generate sports-related revenue for their university — and any other employee.

But there is a difference. The athletes are getting a free college education, room and board — which at Northwestern amounts to about $76,000 a year. That’s a “salary” most working people would consider generous, even without the college credits that go with it.

And while a case might be made for the football and basketball players to receive some share of the sports revenue they help generate for their colleges, what about other athletes, the ones in sports programs that may be money losers?

At most colleges, the revenue-generating sports — essentially farm teams for the NFL and NBA — subsidize the less popular ones. If revenue is shared with football and basketball players, what happens to the other programs if less money remains for them? Would colleges drop programs that can’t pay for themselves?

Collective bargaining isn’t the way to address these questions. But the NLRB ruling is valuable in that it could nudge the NCAA toward loosening its policies regarding player compensation and benefits. For instance, why shouldn’t a star player be able to make some money signing autographs? Should colleges set aside funds to address sports-related health problems athletes may face later?

Although some college athletes will go on to lucrative pro careers, most won’t. If they’re lucky, they’ll get an education that will allow them to make a decent living. Sadly, that’s not always the case. While some progress has been made, athletes’ graduation rates are still too low. All too often, athletes who do graduate have been coddled along in dumbed-down courses.

On an ESPN “Outside the Lines,” segment, a University of North Carolina tutor revealed that a UNC football player got an A- on a 10-sentence paper in an “independent study” course. She claims that she’s worked with several athletes at UNC who read at elementary or middle school levels.

This is not a problem limited to UNC. The NCAA must do more to ensure players are getting real educations, not worthless diplomas. Colleges reap the benefit of athletes’ efforts on the football field or basketball court. It seems too many of them have forgotten that their first mission is education.

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