NCAA's failure to address athlete issues lead to union movement

The Northwestern football team heads to the locker

The Northwestern football team heads to the locker room after warming up before a college football game against Penn State in State College, Pa. Photo Credit: AP / Gene J. Puskar

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Wednesday's to-the-barricades call for college athletes to challenge NCAA tyranny might not have happened in a more benevolent dictatorship. "In my opinion," said Baruch College law professor Marc Edelman, an expert on legal matters in sports, "this could have been avoided long ago."

If the NCAA, as its profits soared into the billions and its football and men's basketball coaching salaries rose exponentially, had listened to athletes' concerns about injuries and tenuous scholarships; if the NCAA had not rejected proposals for small stipends to athletes in the biggest revenue-producing sports, it might not have come to last week's ruling that Northwestern's football players have the right to unionize.

Maybe such a dramatic decision by a regional National Labor Relations Board could at last pressure the NCAA into a negotiating stance. "But the reality," Edelman said, "is that it may be too little, too late."

"While the NCAA very likely could have contained the issue for many years by making small concessions," Edelman said, "the NCAA instead has forced college athletes to move in the direction of revolution. And, from a legal standpoint, the college athletes are winning."

Between Wednesday's NLRB opinion and a U.S. District Court ruling in the 4-year-old suit brought by former UCLA basketball player Ed O'Bannon -- that college athletes can go to court to seek a share of the NCAA's television and licensing profits -- "the cat already seems to be out of the bag," Edelman said.

Though there long has been a tale-of-two-cities disparity, it has been highlighted by recent events: last fall's investigation, and brief suspension, of Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel for signing autographs for cash, even as the fat-and-happy NCAA and A&M profited from Manziel's star power; and a study by the athletes' National College Players Association advocacy group and Drexel University.

According to that report, college basketball and football players are collectively denied $6.2 billion in compensation over their careers. And, given the fact that March Madness generates for the NCAA almost $800 million per year, just in television rights money, the market value of the average male basketball player's scholarship has been put at $1.06 million.

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That's roughly four times greater than the value of those Northwestern football players' scholarships.

More and more, members of the college sports watchdog group, the Knight Commission, have begun to voice concerns of legal and ethical issues with the NCAA model. "To say to players, 'You can't benefit but we can,' that's abusing them," Charles Young, former president at Florida and chancellor at UCLA, said last year.

Yet the NCAA "had to remain pure to its image of the product it was selling," Northeastern University law professor Roger Abrams said. "The only way to differentiate itself in the marketplace was this fiction that its entertainers were students. And only students.

"That was really clever," Abrams said. "But not based in fact or law. It's image."

Now, though, legal eagles are paying more attention to the fact that the NCAA "has gotten incredibly greedy," said Eric Broutman, whose specialties include employment and discrimination for the Lake Success-based Abrams and Fensterman law firm.

"They are making money off these players, who are treated unfairly and concerned about the risk of loss of scholarship and the risk of injury," Broutman said. "If [the NCAA] had been more generous with medical services, stipends, maybe this would have been alleviated."

Instead, Northwestern University has until April 9 to file an appeal to have Wednesday's ruling reviewed by the full NLRB board. That the regional decision will be overturned is "very unlikely," said Abrams, who has written extensively on sports and labor law.

At some point down the road, Abrams expects, college athletes will "seek health coverage, maybe stipends. You won't see an outrageous change in what these kids earn. But ultimately, this will change things. This truly is a game-changer."

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