Enjoying March Madness?
Of course, you are.
But even as an epitome of sports drama, the games were upstaged last week by a stunning National Labor Relations Board ruling that football players at Northwestern University are employees of the school. Not student-athletes, the preferred term of the NCAA. Employees. Which means players can form a union and engage in collective bargaining.
Look: An ace from the NCAA's house of cards just fluttered to the ground.
It's about time.
Understand, we're a long way from talking about the Heisman Trophy winner's salary or a strike by the soccer team over unfair labor practices.
The ruling's practical impact won't be known for a while. But there's a lot more going on that threatens the structure of big-time college sports, an edifice ripe for major change.
A federal lawsuit claims the NCAA and its five biggest conferences rake in billions of dollars in football and basketball while unlawfully capping player compensation at the value of a scholarship. The NCAA goes to trial this summer on a suit filed by former UCLA basketball player Ed O'Bannon that claims college athletes should be compensated when their likenesses are used, for example, in video games. The NCAA also was sued for failing to protect athletes from head injuries.
Let's be clear: The NCAA system -- call the players amateurs, give them scholarships and start counting the money -- largely works for athletes in sports that do not produce revenue (pretty much everything except football and men's basketball). In crew or fencing, for example, a scholarship seems fair compensation. But for players in the most successful football and men's basketball programs, the system is a sham cloaked in hypocrisy.
College sports at that level is a business, and nothing flows to the players on whom the enterprise depends. TV contracts for the new football playoff system and men's basketball tournament are worth $18 billion -- to the NCAA and its schools. Florida men's basketball coach Billy Donovan just got a new $3.7 million-a-year contract. Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith just received an $18,000 bonus -- because one of his school's wrestlers won an NCAA title.
The NCAA's emphasis on the first word in "student-athlete" has been betrayed by its own actions and those of its members. A learning specialist at the University of North Carolina, for example, reported that 60 percent of football and basketball players there read at a level between fourth and eighth grade. Up to 10 percent read below a third-grade level. A CNN investigation of 21 public universities with a major sports program that responded to an open records request found between 7 and 18 percent of athletes in those sports read at an eighth-grade level or less. And those sacrosanct scholarships typically are one-year renewables, meaning they can be canceled for reasons that have nothing to do with academics.
In the Northwestern case, the NLRB said football players are recruited for their athletic prowess, spend as much as 50-60 hours per week on football, and cannot be considered "primarily students."
Northwestern plans to appeal. The NCAA will fight the ruling as well. Whether it sets precedent for players at other private universities remains to be seen. State law, not the NLRB, governs collective bargaining at public universities.
Still, the ruling feels like a Rubicon-crossing moment, and the NCAA has itself to blame. It could have let athletes earn money from marketing ventures. It could have guaranteed medical coverage for sports-related issues that crop up later in life. It could have paid them a much-discussed $2,000 annual stipend for expenses not covered by a scholarship. Colleges could have guaranteed the scholarships for four years.
The NCAA did none of that. Players fought back. Jump ball.
Now it's anybody's game.
Michael Dobie is a member of the Newsday editorial board.