John Feinstein has good thoughts (yes, yes, thoughts I agree with) about the suddenly real possibility of unionization of college athletes.
Whenever there is significant change of any sort, there is a natural tendency to predict doom and gloom. Those who most benefited from the status quo ante are, unsurprisingly, frequently at the front of the line warning of a coming catastrophe.
Feinstein reminds us that “Thirty-eight years ago, when an arbitrator declared Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally free agents, baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn declared free agency would “destroy” the sport’s competitive balance. At last look, baseball appears to be doing quite well in just about every possible way.”
Since lots of people are doing retrospectives today on great April Fool’s Day pranks – remember Sidd Finch – it’s worth recalling one of the great moments in American doomsaying history. Here’s Ronald Reagan, in 1961, on behalf of the AMA denouncing proposals then in the works that would ultimately result in Medicare:
“We are going to spend our sunset years telling our children and our children’s children, what it once was like in America when men were free.”
NCAA boosters always warn that the END IS NIGH when there is discussion of changing the model. On Sunday, Emmert spoke as if it was a given that unionization would lead to taxation of scholarships, though plenty of other folks don’t see it that way. Emmert’s concern here is, I am inclined to believe, disingenuous. In any event, he should probably spend more time worrying about the NCAA’s own tax-exempt status than about the tax status of the grant-in-aids. He also raised the specter of players getting cut for poor performance (Um, hello? They already can). NCAA officials have, hilariously, warned for years about the “potential” of the corrupting influences of commercialization if players were to get a piece of the pie.
Left to its own devices, the NCAA will not enact meaningful change. Many of the issues now being discussed – from increased stipends, to jersey sales, to outside income more generally, to guaranteed medical benefits, to a greater voice for athletes in athletics governance, have been on the table for years and years. And yet, the only reliable change in college sports in recent years has been the steady escalation in sports income that has accrued to the NCAA, its business partners and the ADs and coaches. The NCAA has been discussing “reform” without doing anything about it for a generation or more. And they would spend another generation doing the same, were it not for the legal kick in the pants they are now absorbing on all fronts.
We still don’t know how all this will play out. But the jig is up. The central element of the big-time college sports enterprise is to provide mass entertainment for the purposes of making money. It is not educational. The players who make it all go are, first and foremost, employees who are receiving an anachronistic in-kind payment in exchange for their services.
The world won’t come to an end when the powers-that-be finally no longer have a choice but to recognize that fact.