Two recent developments in college athletics, not necessarily related but certainly relevant to each other, threaten the future of the National College Athletic Association’s control over amateur sports on campus.
In fact, they could remove the last vestiges of “amateur” from college athletics.
The first development was the National Labor Relations Board’s ruling in March that the Northwestern University football team can bargain with the school as employees represented by a union. Whether that’s a colossal victory for student-athletes or a monumental disaster for university athletics depends on your perspective, but it certainly could change the rules of the game.
Northwestern is appealing the NLRB ruling, disputing its finding that the school’s football program is a commercial enterprise and that football scholarship student-athletes are “employees” under the law. That finding, Northwestern contends, ignores the evidence of Northwestern’s commitment to all its student-athletes and the fact that the student-athletes are primarily students.
However, in late April as many as Northwestern 76 scholarship football players cast ballots on whether to form the nation’s first union for college athletics. The ballot box was sealed, and no counting of votes will be conducted while the university’s appeal goes forward, possibly through a protracted court battle.
It’s certainly possible none of the players will have any eligibility left by the time the issue is resolved.
Meanwhile, the same week the NCAA Division I Board of Directors endorsed a new governing structure. This action came after nearly two years of study and discussion.
The restructuring plan would give the five so-called power conferences — the Big Ten, the Pac-12, the Southeastern Conference, the Big 12 and the Atlantic Coast Conference — “autonomy to make rules on specific matters affecting the interests of student-athletes,” as described in an NCAA news release.
The release says a new NCAA council, comprised of representatives of those five leagues, would have authority to make special rules for its members in regard to:
• financial aid, including full cost of attendance and scholarship guarantees;
• insurance, including policies that protect future earnings;
• academic support, particularly for at-risk student-athletes; and
• other support, such as travel for families, free tickets to athletics events, and expenses associated with practice and competition (such as parking).
Let’s call this group the Haves. Many members of these power leagues have a lot of money to spend on their athletic programs, thanks to previous success, alumni and booster support, market locations, etc. Each conference was wealthy enough that its median athletic spending per athlete in 2010, according to a USA Today database, was in excess of $100,000. Topping the list, which measured public institutions only, was the SEC, of which Arkansas is a member, with a median per athlete of $163,931.
The remaining members we’ll call the Wannabes because for years most of their members have been striving to compete with the Haves. They’re at a huge financial disadvantage. For example, in the Sun Belt Conference, of which Arkansas State is a member, the median spending per athlete in 2010 was “just” $41,796.
The Haves believe that if they want to spend more on their student-athletes, say by giving them an extra $2,000 in spending money, they shouldn’t need the approval of the Wannabes.
USA Today reports that only 23 of the 228 public universities in NCAA Division I generated enough money to cover all their athletic expenses in 2012. And 16 of those received some type of revenue subsidy — student fees, direct and indirect institutional support and state tax money.
Only LSU, Nebraska, Ohio State, Oklahoma, Penn State, Purdue and Texas reported receiving no subsidy money in 2012. Arkansas was one of the schools showing a “profit,” but its revenue included $1.9 million in school funds — probably mostly from sales to students of “access passes.”
Therefore, even some members of the Haves leagues may have trouble keeping up with their richest peers. Of course, all could be forced to raise the ante if it turns out their athletes can indeed form a union.
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Roy Ockert is editor emeritus of The Jonesboro Sun. He may be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.