College athletes, unionization, and the bogeyman

Let’s imagine a woman’s on fire.  She screams for water.  One person near her says, “That woman’s on fire!  She’s asking for water.  Water’s good.  Sand would be better.”  Another person says, “You know what would be perfect?  A fire extinguisher.  This room should have a fire extinguisher.”  A third chimes in, “There are lots of ways to solve this problem.  I’ve always been wary of water.  It could drown us all.”  Does this conversation sound absurd to you?  Substitute “college athlete” for “woman,” “workplace compensation and or/safety issue” for “fire,” and “a union” for “water,” and you’ll get a pretty good idea of the negative reactions to the recent ruling allowing for the possibility of college athletes’ unionizing.

Everyone, to a person, agrees that athletes need more protection and more fair compensation.  The difference is in the proposed solutions.  Today’s forum in the NY Times on the issue provides a fairly good range of the debate so far concerning this week’s ruling that Northwestern football players can unionize.

Some are in favor of unionization, because of the long-time exploitation of athletes at the hands of big-time university programs.  Allen Sack argues, fairly clearly, athletes meet the characteristics of employees.  He writes

Under common law, an employee is a person who performs services for another under a contract of hire, subject to the other’s control in return for payment.

That pretty much describes college athletes.

Nonetheless, noted sports economist Andrew Zimbalist (he does great work) argues that top football and men’s basketball coaches rake in millions, but not athletes, an imbalance of compensation because of athletes’ lack of bargaining power–but worries about athletes being treated as employees.  Yes, they would; and, as Sack points out, athletes would be eligible for workers’ compensation, which would go a long way to meeting one of their basic demands, that colleges don’t adequately protect their athletes.

Meanwhile, the two contributors most strongly opposed to unionization don’t, in fact, offer any realistic viable alternative.  Amy Privette Perko, of the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics, claims that her organization “supports many of the benefits being sought for college athletes by groups like the College Athletes Players Association, but unions are not needed to guarantee those benefits.”  She then offers a list of committees, commissions, and governance changes that her commission supports.  Question for us all: if universities have exploited athletes for over half a century, what would make them change voluntarily now?  Perko insists that “institutions must treat college athletes as students first and foremost, not as professionals.”  OK, fine.  We know that colleges can do better, but they don’t, and right now, nothing’s forcing them to.

Lawyer and professor Glenn Wong, too, agrees that “Significant improvements must be made for college athletes,” but cautions that if “college athletes want a union to win those benefits, they should be careful what they wish for.”  Why?  They’d have to pay taxes, and, even worse apparently, “they might face strikes and other worker actions and the employer universities will be able to use work actions such as lockouts.”  Excuse me prof. Wong, but, when workers go on strike, whose choice is it to do so?  Oh, the workers.  As for lockouts, athletes already can lose their scholarships or be cut from teams pretty easily, but it would be hard to imagine any university or set of universities locking out athletes, for fear of lost revenue (although, admittedly, pro sports have done it; but we have to remember that pro sports’ economics work differently).  Finally, he worries about programs’ tax-exempt status.  And, pray tell, why shouldn’t these programs pay taxes?  He wonders where all this money will come from.  If you’ve read Zimabalist’s piece, then you already know that the NCAA is awash in billions.

In sum, we’ve heard it before: critics of unions offer many rationales against unions, few of them defensible. But meanwhile, they offer no workable solutions for protecting workers, only the suggestion that without pesky unions, employers could do better for employees.  As my grandpappy used to say, “yes, and if frogs had wings, they wouldn’t bump their asses on the rocks so much.”  Unions aren’t perfect, but they’re still the single best way for workers to protect their interests.

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