The thing about ignoring a problem is that someone else might solve it for you, and you might not like that solution. Such is the case with a recent National Labor Relations Board ruling that NCAA football players at Northwestern University are college employees and can form a union.
That solution addresses two kinds of problems, both of which the NCAA should have long ago solved. One kind of problem is that being a college football player is a full-time job, but players don’t receive adequate compensation, while coaches, athletic directors and the NCAA are raking in the dough. Yes, a player may receive a scholarship that might lead to a job someday. Meanwhile, Razorbacks head coach Bret Bielema made $3.2 million last year. A big issue for Northwestern players is receiving medical care after graduation for injuries suffered on the field. As it stands now, they’re cut off.
Another way of looking at the problem is this: The people making all the money and making all the decisions are the ones who only think they have all the power. The ones who actually have a lot of power — the players that fans are paying to see — aren’t receiving adequate and immediate compensation. In a free market economy, that imbalance probably can’t last forever.
Seth Armbrust, who played for the Razorbacks his sophomore, junior and senior seasons, didn’t even receive a scholarship except during his junior year.
Armbrust was not a star, but he did contribute as a special teams captain and as a reserve at cornerback and safety. During his college career, he spent eight-10 hours a day on football-related activities. The scholarships he received his junior year barely covered living expenses, so he supplemented his income with a job as a lifeguard. That’s in addition to going to class. As for his fellow scholarship recipients, some did not always budget their money correctly. On the other hand, some sent part of their checks home, where the money was needed more.
“Our scholarship is literally the minimum. ... Once you pay your rent and you pay your bills, there’s not a whole lot left over,” he said.
Armbrust said he and the rest of the players played for the love of the game and did not resent the way they were treated, but he couldn’t help but notice that the money did not trickle his way. He was asked to sit at luncheons with athletics boosters whose gifts were funding his backups’ scholarships. He didn’t get a cut of the sales of programs with his likeness on them. Stars like quarterbacks Ryan Mallett and Tyler Wilson received nothing for sales of jerseys with their names on them.
This is not a new issue. In fact, it’s been gaining traction. Former NCAA players have sued over video games featuring their likenesses. The NCAA responded by ending its relationship with the manufacturer. There was a big to-do over Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel making money signing autographs. He didn’t even own the rights to his name.
The ruling only applies to private schools like Northwestern, not to public universities like the University of Arkansas, and it’s being appealed. But the door has been opened for other enforcement actions as well as many other complications. For example, can players strike? If playing football is their job and their scholarships are their salary, do they have to pay taxes?
The whole issue could have been solved from the outset had the big-business NCAA been more flexible. Armbrust said an extra $500 to $1,000 a month would have meant a lot to the players. Continuing health care would have helped, too. “At the end of the day, we’re getting to do what we love to do, and that was go out and play football,” he said.
Young men like that can be assuaged pretty easily — a little extra money to pay for laundry and dates, and a guarantee that if they still need ankle surgery after they graduate, the university will help them out.
College football execs haven’t been willing to do that. Instead, they insisted that players remain amateurs while everyone else got paid. So someone else came up with a solution, with its own set of problems.
(Contact Steve Brawner at Twitter @stevebrawner)