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Friday, April 04, 2003
College Athletics Union?
During the past month the NCAA, its conferences, and member schools have unwittingly set in motion a cycle of events that will result in a college athletics union. This week the University of North Carolina forced coach Matt Doherty to resign after a players revolt. He had lost two transfers last year and at least three more threatened to transfer after this season. The players were upset about Doherty's infamous temper (spelled "hostile work environment"). A similar chain of events, led by ex-players, led to Bobby Knight's ouster at Indiana.

Last month, we saw Georgia's basketball players go to court--and lose--to force the university to complete its basketball season. The players' rationale was that the players on the team had committed no violations and that it was unfair to punish them for the administration's failure to oversee its coaching staff and recruiting processes.

And, most notoriously of all, the St. Bonaventure's players instituted a work-stoppage when they refused to play the last two games of their season after the Atlantic-10 Conference ruled the team ineligible for their post-season tournament and forfeited victories. St. Bonaventure's administration had admitted and used on the team an academically unqualified player.

Sports fans despise unions in professional sports because they see them as a tool to increase already outrageous player salaries, disrupt franchise stability through greater free agency, and extort more money from them on the theory that all player costs are passed on to fans. Fans would likely despise a college union for similar reasons if it resulted in players being paid above and beyond their scholarships.

However, these junkies often support some player positions that a union could help. Few things rile up fans more than a coach leaving his team after committing to a recruiting class. Few things except when the coach leaves the team because of recruiting violations that are visited upon the remaining players, whose ability to transfer the NCAA limits.

Some of you may say, "What the hell are you talking about? They're in college." Yes, but students are not exempt from organizing. Graduate students in the University of California system participate in a union that protects them from unfair work practices (e.g., being forced to teach too many classes or hours and jeopardizing their own graduate studies), ensures decent insurance coverage, and assures fair compensation. In fact, several states with major research universities have graduate student unions.

The hours spent away from class, the long travel schedules, and the meager compensation relative to the universties', conferences', and NCAA's revenues make this a ripe opportunity for unionization. Money moves things. But, it will also help in other work situtations, as with an abusive coach.

And for those of you who say: "Yeah, but athletes are on scholarship," so are most of the graduate students at these universities. It's not clear what makes undergraduate student-athletes so different from graduate student-researchers. In both cases, the students are a cheap source of labor for what the university produces. In one market, it's sports entertainment, in another it's research and knowledge. The NCAA is an organization that represents the interests of its member institutions first and foremost and which only incidentally cares about the student athlete; graduate students should be thankful that they do not also play sports.

Yes, the NCAA does some things that help students. For example, the catastrophic injury insurance program reduces some of the costs and risks of injury that players bear, especially star players. I believe there are also insurance programs for likely high round draft picks who stay in school. But while the NCAA may do such things with genuine concern for athletes, it may also do them for fear of losing players to the pros and risking the NCAA its many of millions of dollars in revenues. And not all student-athletes have insurance protection for athletics-related injuries. A union would redress the balance of power between students and their schools/employers.

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