For anyone who is a fan of college sports, we’re living in an undeniably fascinating time. On every front, the existing “collegiate model” is under attack. Lawsuits seem to accumulate by the day. The NCAA suffered perhaps it’s most serious legal set back to date in August when Judge Claudia Wilken ruled in the O’Bannon case that the NCAA and its member schools are in violation of antitrust laws by denying players the right to a portion of profits derived from the sale of their images and likenesses. That ruling augurs further attacks on the NCAA’s business model. The formidable legal adversary, Jeffrey Kessler, has filed suit to attack directly the association’s refusal to pay its players commensurate with their market value. The National Labor Relations Board has, until and unless a regional office’s ruling is overturned, deemed Northwestern University football players – and by extension, football players at some seventeen other high profile private universities, including Notre Dame – to be employees under American labor law.
And most recently, former UNC player Michael McAdoo, whose plagiarized paper help to break open the athletic-academic scandal that continues to roil the university, has filed a class action lawsuit. That lawsuit charges that UNC broke a contract with McAdoo by failing to deliver on its promise to provide meaningful educational opportunities.
The lawsuit also details McAdoo’s recruitment process, which the suit claims was misleading.
“During each of the visits, the coaches stressed UNC’s stellar academic reputation and strength as well as the UNC football program’s commitment to its student-athletes’ academics,” the lawsuit states. “Indeed, during one of the visits, Mr. McAdoo remembers head coach Davis telling Mr. McAdoo’s mother, grandmother and grandfather, ‘I can’t guarantee that Michael will play in the NFL, but one thing I can guarantee is that he will get a good education at the University of North Carolina.’”
Whether McAdoo sincerely believed he was going to be receiving a first-class education when he arrived at Chapel Hill will, undoubtedly, be a matter of debate and contention. But what is undeniable is that big time college sports programs *sell* that idea vigorously, both during the recruiting process and in their public-facing justifications for why college sports are, first and foremost, an educational endeavor, not a business.
In reality, NCAA coaches, athletic officials and other supporters continually use language that suits their particular needs in particular contexts, even if doing so requires them to contradict directly language they’ve used in other contexts. Coaches, for example, commonly use the word “contract” when explaining why players who fail to meet coaches’ demands may be subject to dismissal, but otherwise deny that players are employees who might receive the protection of contract and labor law; athletic directors insist that multi-milion dollar coaches’ salaries reflect what the market will bear, while otherwise denying that the language of markets may be invoked in describing college sports; other coaches insist when it’s convenient that they and their staffs are on their players every day about their academic performance, before turning around and denying that they would know anything about such matters.
I don’t have an opinion at the moment about the legal merits of his case. But what is clear is that, on every front, the NCAA and its member institutions are being called on their own justifications for the unique status that their enterprise enjoys. It’s a massive money-making venture that nevertheless declares with a straight face that it is necessary to deny those most responsible for enterprise’s profits a cut of the spoils for their own good. That tortured rationale cannot stand if the NCAA and its constituent schools are unable to demonstrate that they are delivering on the vital non-pecuniary benefit they insist they provide.