Letter to the Editor: Rethinking the student-athlete model

Norman C. Wang

April 25 will mark one year since the Northwestern football team voted on whether to form a union represented by the College Athletes Players Association (CAPA). National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) regional director Peter Sung Ohr ruled that they are employees and eligible to collectively bargain. The NU appeal is still pending. The status of the players — student-athletes or employees — remains in limbo. Is the student-athlete concept false? What are we to make of the CAPA initiatives?

The student-athlete model continues despite reformation of the amateurism concept in other sporting competitions, such as the Olympics. This is testament to that fact that it is beneficial to the majority. This model is challenged mainly in college football and men’s basketball. These individuals are not victims. They are adults who voluntarily accepted the parameters of the student-athlete tenders. The term student-athlete has become so reviled, however, that the College Athletes Rights and Empowerment Faculty Coalition has framed this as a human rights issue stating, “We stand behind and with college football and men’s basketball players in their efforts to be treated humanely and with dignity.” Not surprisingly, they do not stand behind and with non-revenue sports players. Regarding employee status, CAPA admitted, “It may be more difficult to make that case in other sports and divisions.”

Did the exceptional NU women’s lacrosse team feel exploited during their nine-day tour through Italy in 2014? At what revenue point does the student-athlete tender transform from a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to indentured servitude?

Revenue may lead many to believe that these players are intrinsically worth millions. That is almost entirely false. If every player who would go on to be a professional athlete were to be removed, the events would be barely diminished. The real product is the pageantry created by the NCAA and universities. Dayton, Ohio estimated that the region generates over $4.5 million as host for the NCAA men’s basketball tournament’s First Four. These teams competing in Dayton would be afterthoughts if not part of March Madness. Additionally, stellar athletes that increase viewership are rare since many of the best remain in college for only 1-3 years. Outside of their college uniforms, the vast majority of players have a market value of near zero. Former two-time All-Big Ten NU shooting guard Drew Crawford currently plays in the NBA Development League, where the highest salary tier is $25,000 per year.

The faults of CAPA are two-fold. First, it has been disingenuous. Kain Colter stated, “a lot of people will think this is all about money; it’s not.” The main objectives consist of guaranteed coverage for sports-related medical expenses, minimizing the risk of sports-related traumatic brain injury, improving graduation rates by establishing educational trust funds and rewards for on-time graduation, increasing athletic scholarships and allowing players to receive compensation for commercial sponsorships, and establishing a system to secure due process rights. CAPA Founder and President, Ramogi Huma, co-authored a study titled “The $6 Billion Heist: Robbing College Athletes Under The Guise of Amateurism” which focused “primarily on financial aspects of reform.” These costly proposals have everything to do with money.

Second, CAPA fails to address the core problem. A 2009 article titled “How (And Why) Athletes Go Broke” suggests that even the few who sign lucrative professional contracts are unlikely to benefit long-term if not prepared to judiciously manage those finances. Commercial sponsorships would, in most cases, be insignificant compared to an education which prepares one for life. CAPA would like to increase graduation rates, but a diploma does not necessarily equal meaningful learning. In 2008, USA Today revealed how many are steered to “major in eligibility.” In the University of North Carolina scandal, some could not read or write at a high school level. An entire “shadow curriculum” was created to maintain eligibility. Yet, CAPA neither calls for decreases in training time and games, nor details improvements to academic evaluation and oversight.

The fundamental failing of the current student-athlete model is that many, either due to time constraints or poor pre-college preparation, cannot take advantage of educational opportunities which would provide the best chance for long-term employment and financial security. This is the true travesty.

In 2005, the NCAA increased the number of regular season football games from 11 to 12 despite protests from a number of academic administrators and coaches. This past season, The Ohio State University football team played 15 games on their way to win the national championship. The College Football Playoff has been a pursuit of The Walt Disney Company for over two decades. When originally proposed as the Disney Classic in 1993, university presidents scoffed. Disney was undeterred and purchased Capital Cities/ABC, which owned the ESPN networks, in 1996. In 2008, ESPN signed a contract with the Bowl Championship Series and all BCS bowls were moved to cable television in 2011.  ESPN earns the largest cable subscriber fees of any channel so it is imperative to continually enhance it. The first College Football Playoff championship game in 2015 was the highest viewed cable television event of all time. ESPN has already suggested an 8-team playoff.

The University of Wisconsin men’s basketball team played an astonishing 40 games to reach the championship game of the NCAA tournament. Not long ago, a 96-team men’s basketball tournament field was considered. This is not surprising when a staggering 90% of NCAA revenue comes from March Madness.

True reform demands cuts in the schedules. The football regular season should be 10 games. Conference championships and a national playoff should finish by early December.  There should be no other bowls games. The men’s basketball regular season should be 20 games with only four teams advancing to the Big Ten tournament. Off-campus “multi-team events” and most games during winter break should be eliminated. The NCAA tournament should be decreased to 48 or 32 teams.

A monumental conflict-of-interest exists for the NCAA and universities. It is impossible to maintain objectivity when regulatory bodies, including unions, have large financial stakes. Federal oversight has already been considered. Congressmen, however, are beholden to their constituents who have regional financial interests in these athletic events. An independent accreditation organization that does not benefit from profit-driven relationships and has complete transparency is the only solution.

The student-athlete model requires adjustment, but is generally positive. CAPA propositions miss the main problem entirely. Those in positions of influence at NU should make efforts within the Big Ten Conference and the NCAA to decrease athletic commitments so players may devote more time to academic pursuits. Reversing trends in college sports will result in less revenue, but will also certainly bring more integrity.

Norman C. Wang, McCormick ‘94, Feinberg ‘98