Unionization? Be careful what you wish for.

I had to vomit through the daily sports talk radio recap of the unionization talk coming out of Northwestern University. Simplistic comments like “The NCAA makes Billions” or “Million Dollar Coaches are the issue” is silly — and takes one small nugget of the whole college football world and makes it simple.

Unionization of anything does more than give players a voice. Depending on how it is set up, it can force them to pay dues for that voice, elect officials who have to represent all of the NCAA, and brings up questions of being taxed for their income, of costs per student athlete to schools, and the reality that the NCAA and schools in general have to support more than just football and men’s basketball.  In order to comply with Title IX, there has to be an equal representation and compensation for female athletes as well as male.

So what are these programs and players fighting for? The right to a guaranteed scholarship?  That is not available to other students. If you don’t reach the minimum requirements of your scholarship, you forfeit it. For instance, if you get a full ride for academics that requires you get a 3.5 accumulative grade point average, not complying with that means you lose your scholarship. While many might say, “But look at how much money sports generates for the school,” — I say it is not much.

Oregon State’s athletic department owes the university $19 million because it had to borrow money to fund its programs. At the same time, the campaign for OSU has raised almost $1 billion for the school itself. Even schools that are top 10 football schools such as the University of Oregon require donations from non athletes to fund their Go-Bot-looking facilities playground.

When the term “$9 billion industry” gets thrown around, it is not thrown around responsibly.  The entities that could pay for the changes in athlete status are schools, the NCAA, TV networks, network distributors, and the NFL.

Schools:
Schools are not a viable option as I have mentioned above. Outside of schools such Alabama and Texas, most schools use football and basketball to pay for their whole athletic department. In Oregon State’s case, football makes between $16 million and $20 million profit a year after expenses. The remainder of that money goes to funding all the other sports on campus. If they had to pay things like workman’s comp or medical benefits post graduation for all students, that would bankrupt the program.

Here is an article on what the top 25 schools generated in income from football from Forbes online. Considering that most of these programs have to fund all the sports on campus, you will see that the number of schools generating enough revenue to do this and pay their coaches and pay their athletes, or even cover the additional union costs, which might include workman’s comp and extended medical coverage, means that most of these schools would probably have to cut sports to stay in the black. In order to do this and stay Title IX compliant would mean that many schools might consider cutting sports all together.

NCAA:
The NCAA made roughly $70 million in profit last year. The NCAA also supports all college athletes across all sports, not just football and basketball. If they had to spread that across the 400,00 atheletes within the NCAA, that would equate to about $177.50 student athlete. For more on this, check out this amazing post on Beaver Blitz that outlines a lot of the numbers and issues related to the NCAA sponsoring unionized student athletes.  The NCAA is not a viable option regardless of what the media says.

Networks/Network Providers:
Networks and Network Providers make the largest piece of the pie. ESPN is on pace to become a $9 billion company. Networks make a lot of money off college football, but it is hard to nail down how much. The issue is that ESPN just broadcasts what is there. As sports ebb and flow in popularity, ESPN makes it money presenting it to the masses. The network has the second most to lose by this proposal because college football is very important to their revenue model, which is why the narrative of ESPN and other sports networks is going to be one of the “Greedy NCAA” and “Greedy Colleges” that overpay coaches. Networks will even report on concussions and the lack of supervision at colleges for student athletes. It is in their best interest to keep this topic hot and to force the focus on the schools and NCAA because it deflects the fact that the main money makers in the billion dollar industry that is college football is them.

Unfortunately for the athletes and universities, those media outlets are not going to pay for anything for the same reason that radio stations don’t pay musicians for music. They pay for licensing to play the music and the people they pay are responsible for finding and funding the talent. So while ESPN, CBS, and Fox Sports seem like they should be on the hook more since they are the main money makers, they are not.  And they really shouldn’t be, because they are just the outlet, not the creator of the content.

NFL:
The NFL should definitely be on the hook  The NFL has gotten away with a FREE minor league for years. College football takes kids that are not physically ready for the demands of the NFL and gives them training and coaching that prepares them for the next step. Of the roughly 6000 draft eligible players every year, 250 of them will get drafted. Not all of those 250 will be retained past the first year or even through training camp. So that means of the 10,000 Division I football players playing every year, only 1/10th of them will even get a shot at the NFL. So the NFL gets to hand pick the few great players for its league without spending a cent on their development. If players need compensation or a change in status or health care benefits, the NFL would be a good place to start. Right?

Well, probably not. How many future employers are responsible for the scholarships and health care of potential employees, or all employees that could potentially work for them while they are in school? Does Google pay medical expenses for all computer science students in hopes that some of them come their way after graduation?

Conclusion:
The reality is that while the industry itself is worth millions, there is no mechanism that can sustain paying student athletes in a fair and complete way. No single institution in the game can afford the bill that the unionization of players might incur. Even the ones that could, really shouldn’t because it is not their responsibility.

While there are aspects of being a college football player that seem unfair, compared to other student athletes, they are getting a great deal. They get free education, free meals, free boarding, free books, and free tutors. If they are in the lucky and hard working 10% that can make a career in the NFL, they will be taken care of financially in their career just like every other student who finds work related to his/her degree. There are health risks to the players of the game, but they also get free health care while they are an athlete. Can they lose their scholarship for poor performance? Yes.  Just like every other student at their school.

Ultimately, the problem with college football and the football system in itself is that people outside of the institution are using it to get money. (For example, vendors jacking up their prices because the Olympics are in town.) College Football has its share of leaches and hangers on that make a lot of money off the backs of other people’s work, just like most big businesses.

What college athletes are getting is an education in how the world works.  Anyone that has a job knows that you get paid to do a job for someone else, unless you are the business owner.  If you are the business owner, then you have to provide for everyone that works for you so that you can make a profit. There are no easy or fair jobs out there. Some people get lucky, but the majority of us have to work and watch our labor make money for others.

Unionization is not something to be taken lightly or that can be taken back. You need all the facts in this case and cannot just say this is a huge industry and they can afford it. “They” is a wide array of institutions and not all of them are capable of meeting those demands.  The changes you seek might not be the ones you want, but the knee jerk, simplification of the problem is dangerous — and knowing that most people get their information from people given talking points from their outlet is scary. If you don’t believe me, listen to ESPN radio from the morning to the afternoon and see how many people say the EXACT same thing.

Very few issues are that universally obvious, otherwise they wouldn’t be issues.

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