The NCAA, Northwestern, and a Crack 30+ Years in the Making

Today was a big day for college sports. The National Labor Relations Board has declared Northwestern University football players employees (read the decision here). The potential ramifications of this decision are vast.  Northwestern and the NCAA have already lawyered up and are undoubtedly poised to fight the decision. As Dave Zirin of The Nation wrote earlier today “this decision marks the first real crack in the NCAA cartel in any of our lifetimes.”

Scholars and journalists have compared the current system of labor and compensation in big-time college athletics to indentured servitude. Akim Reinhardt at The Public Professor described it as a “plantation economy” where scores of millionaires “are profiting handsomely from of the labor of other adults, the most accomplished of whom must settle for being exploited because they’ve been temporarily iced out of their professional jobs.” This icing, however, is not the product of the NCAA, but of professional sports leagues. Both the NBA and the NFL have age restrictions that prevent players from entering their leagues, essentially forcing talented players into the exploitative collegiate system. Such barriers reflect the tacit support by these leagues of the NCAA and its policies.

The NCAA has cleverly weaseled its way into its current position as the supreme governing body of big-time college athletic through a variety of these tacit endorsements and its Progressive history linked to Theodore Roosevelt. The NCAA is not a governmental organization, but it often thinks and operates like it is. Its power is predominately derived from its positions and its near monopoly of college sports. College and universities have voluntarily subjected themselves to the NCAA’s oversight for over a century because of its role in restoring and preserving “sanity” in college athletics. This power enables it to write, rewrite, and enforce its rules as it sees fit.[1]

By the mid-1950s, the NCAA’s modern infrastructure and position of power was secured.[2] Rules and regulations regarding recruiting, scholarship, professionalism, and television were seized from universities and their various conferences to create a national standard. Much of this power grab was based on Progressive concerns about amateurism, safety, preventing the influences of evil vices such as gambling, and then later, awarding national championships. Indeed, the first national championship event sponsored by the NCAA wasn’t until 1921 (for track and field), 16 years after the organization was founded. The now famous NCAA basketball tournament began in 1939.

While Zirin suggests that today’s ruling is the first crack in the NCAA’s cartel, this is only partially true. There have been several instances where the NCAA has been challenged, rivaled, and a few cases defeated. The most notable of these events was the 1984 Supreme Court NCAA v. Board of Regents of the University of Oklahoma, which declared that the NCAA violated the Sherman and Clayton Anti Trust Acts by monopolizing and controlling each school’s television broadcasting rights. Prior to that the NCAA controlled all broadcasting rights and limited the number of games on TV each week — something unthinkable today. When the University of Pennsylvania challenged this authority, the NCAA solidified its cartel by prohibiting any member school from playing them. The feud lasted three years and essentially destroyed the UPenn program. The NCAA justified its actions by claiming it was looking out for small colleges by spreading the money around instead of letting them get slip into anonymity on the open market. Jeffrey Montez de Oca also suggests that established the cartel and restrictive TV policy to protect the youth and preserve college’s “overall athletic mission to fortify masculinity.”[3] This case revolutionized college sports by allowing universities and their athletic conferences to negotiate their own broadcasting contracts and reap the financial benefits.

The NCAA recovered from this setback, thanks in large part to the rising popularity of its basketball tournament. Since then, however, football has slowly drifted out of its control and back towards individual institutions and conferences. The recent conference realignments driven by the race for bigger and bigger television contracts, that are largely responsible for the influx of money into college sports, would have been impossible under the old system. That is not to say the old system was fair or just, by any means, but rather to suggest that the unraveling of the NCAA and the bubble of college athletics likely started then. The decision today, while critical and devastating for the NCAA, is a bit ironic because it pushes back against the neoliberal deregulatory aims of the 1984 Supreme Court Case — which the NCAA adamantly fought — but now seems to embrace.[4]

Unlike in 1984, it’s more difficult to see the NCAA surviving and adapting to a new economic climate created by the unionization of student-athletes. Within the current structure, most athletic departments operate in the red, though this is mostly an accounting trick. Most athletic departments take in plenty of money, but instead of spreading it around or giving it back to universities, they’ve artificially inflated the value of coaches and administrators. This trick gives the illusion that they are unable to share the wealth and pay players for their services in attracting billion dollar contracts.  Of course, in reality the trick perpetuates an unethical and exploitative system of greed that only benefits a few individuals.

Last year I wrote about many of the challenges in paying college athletes under the current system. I addressed many of the fiscal concerns with break-even athletic departments and Title IX without rethinking salaries. I concluded that athletes do need to be more fairly compensated, and the expansion/explosion of TV money can help fuel that. But paying athletes will only work, legally, with Title IX, and financially, with education remaining the central purpose of a university, if we focus on paying everyone through a self-sustaining athletic department. Paying only revenue athletes violates Title IX, and paying everyone without requiring self-sustaining sports programs only further diverts money away from academics (the reason universities exist) to sports.

While these remain real challenges to athletic reform, today’s ruling all but guarantees the current system cannot survive. As much as NCAA President Mark Emmert has said he’s open to the idea of paying players, simply paying them is a whole different scenario than the collective bargaining that a unionized workforce would demand. It’s difficult to imagine the results of such bargaining and how it would impact big-time college athletics as we know them. One thing is for certain though, should the NLRB’s decisions survive the onslaught of challenges, there is no going back.

[1]To be sure, there are other alternatives such as the National Association of Intercollegiate athletics which broke away when the NCAA stripped voting power from many of its small school in the late 1940s. Yet, organizations like the NAIA appeal to a different constituency: smaller schools that do not sponsor big-time sports. The NCAA did, however, try to reclaim many of these defectors when it split into divisions until 1973.
[2] For a good history of the NCAA see: Joseph N. Crowley, In the Arena: The NCAA’s First Century: (Indianapolis, IN: NCAA, 2006).
[3] Jeffrey Montez de Oca, Discpline and Indulgence: College Football, Media, and the American Way of Life during the Cold War, (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2013), 88-89.
[4] If viewed through this lens, today’s ruling can be seeing as the NCAA being caught in the pinch of neoliberalism. The deregulation of college football television contracts by the 1984 court case created a bubble in college athletics. The NCAA responded and even embraced the new climate after its defeat, as seen through the huge sums it receives for it basketball tournament. Indeed, for the past 30 years this neoliberal model has worked perfectly because they were able to keep their labor costs incredibly low by only sharing the wealth with administrators and coaches. Deregulation and the expansion of TV contracts in recent years, however, have increased the awareness and agitation of athletes demanding a piece of the pie. The NLRB ruling undermines this model and disrupts the exploitation of workers and free flow of capital to the NCAA and athletic administrators. It gives athletes not only a seat at the table but the power to bargain. Though it was likely greed that fueled the NCAA’s defense of their TV monopoly in 1984, one has to wonder what college sports would look like without the influx of deregulated TV money. Has the NCAA always been a ticking-time bomb? Or was it the neoliberal deregulation of the NCAA’s control over TV contracts that started the clock?

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