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Steve Murray

NLRB Ruling A Blow To NCAA Hypocrisy

Former NCAA head Walter Byers invented the term “student-athlete” in the 1950s to protect Fort Lewis A&M University from a lawsuit brought by the wife of Ray Dennison, who died after suffering a head injury playing football.

Her claim for survivor benefits was denied by the Colorado Supreme Court, which ruled there was no contract for hire between her husband and the university, and that his status as a student would not change should he quit playing football.

The ambiguous term was a stroke of genius – perhaps evil genius.

With no standard definition of what it means to play college athletics while pursuing an education, schools, courts and the NCAA have used the invented term to lock athletes into a colonialist system from which the universities profit off the labor of workers who have no input into issues concerning their own health and well-being.

In his 1997 book Unsportsmanlike Conduct, Byers admitted the NCAA’s definition of amateurism was complete crap.

Now, for the first time in more than 60 years, those colonial bonds have been severely challenged.

A week ago, National Labor Relations Board regional director Peter Sung Ohr ruled that Northwestern University’s football players were not student-athletes but employees of the university who were recruited and paid – by way of scholarship – to play for the university. Northwestern is planning an appeal.

A reading of the 24-page decision makes any other conclusion difficult to understand.

Ohr writes, “Under the common law definition, an employee is a person who performs services for another under a contract of hire, subject to the other’s control or right of control, and in return for payment.”

The ruling found that Northwestern players were paid (in scholarships, room, board, etc.) as much as $76,000 per year from $235 million in revenue raised between 2003 and 2012. Throughout the academic year, the players were required to spend as much as 50 hours a week on football as compared to 20 hours on academics.

In addition to the control of their schedule, Ohr found that “coaches have control over nearly every aspect of the players’ private lives by virtue of the fact that there are many rules that they must follow under threat of discipline and/or loss of a scholarship.”

The players won round one of a very long fight, but they alreadyare losing the battle for public opinion, especially among those whose best interests are in maintaining the status quo – NCAA coaches and administrators.

Within hours of the ruling, representatives from the NCAA and every major conference released a statement criticizing the ruling.

Clemson head football coach Dabo Swinney summed up the hypocrisy, saying the ruling devalued education.

“We’ve got enough entitlement in this country as it is,” said the $3.15 million coach to The Post and Courier. Swinney favors a stipend for the players.

The reasoning is clear: a stipend, because it comes from the benevolence of the overseer, is proper. Players, because they acted without permission and want a voice in the process, are troublemakers looking for a handout.

If Swinney or anyone else really valued education, they would slash the athletic commitment to allow more time for academics. That’s not going to happen.

When the term student-athlete was invented, Northwestern played nine football games per season. Since then, the value of football has only increased, rising to 10 games in 1965, 11 games in 1971, 12 games in 1995 and 13 games in 2003. That’s a 44-percent increase in games (and corresponding practice times) without adding anything for academics.

Ohr’s ruling affects only Northwestern’s scholarship football players, and perhaps other scholarship athletes at private universities, should they choose to follow suit. States’ laws regarding collective bargaining for public employees varies widely, so the prospect of the College Athletes Players Association (CAPA) becoming a nationwide organization seems slim. Another problem is the constant turnover of athletes in and out of the NCAA system.

It remains to be seen what any future representative body may look like. The student-athlete advisory council that exists on all campuses is toothless, and a European-style work council in absence of a union is prohibited by the National Labor Relations Act.

The only assurance is that the NCAA and the universities will spend millions defending the antiquated system, even while their ageold excuse is repeatedly debunked as laughable.

In the end it might come down to a battle between player resolve and NCAA financing. Whichever lasts longer, wins.

smurray@midweek.com
Twitter:@SteveMurray84

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