College Atheletes: Employees on a Farm Team?

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During the Great Depression in New York City, older folks would talk about “union made” and the “union label” – probably because the garment industry was huge in NYC. This was when the Montreal Royals were the top farm team for baseball’s Brooklyn Dodgers. College teams were not supplying talent to professional teams back then. Professional football had not arrived.

I never thought the day would come when unionized college athletes would wear the union label on their uniforms with pride. It could come to that if a ruling by a regional director of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) is upheld. That ruling: Football players at Northwestern University are employees with the legal right to bargain collectively to form a union.

It seems so foreign to imagine college athletes picketing for higher wages, or union work rules limiting practice hours or playing time.

The ongoing counter-cultural change dividing our country remains in high gear and is redefining Americana – only now it’s college sports.

You can’t look to tradition with collegiate sports for guidance because college football and basketball have evolved into a multibillion-dollar industry, what with eye-popping TV network contracts and merchandising deals. At the very least college sports has become the equivalent of a professional farm team system. Remember the International league? Young kids used to go straight from high school into professional baseball.

Basketball? Moses Malone made the jump (pun intended) from high school to an ABA/NBA career which lasted 21 years.

In the case of Northwestern the NLRB director viewed its football scholarships as contracts for compensation for playing football, because the athletes devote most of their time to football. (While entirely fortuitous, the NCAA. just recently engineered a pro-style football playoff system also worth billions in revenue.)

Given all this, the obvious fact is these players are recruited for their athletic ability, not their academics. It strains credulity to suggest these athletes are primarily students. They work – at sports.

It does seem undeniable that top-tier athletes are at best hybrid athletes under contract – underpaid athletes first, and students a distant second. Ironically, their scholarship rules are similar to employment contracts embellished with “work rules.” They should be fairly compensated.

Given the tradition of college athletes as being amateurs, it doesn’t seem possible for the NCCA. to modify its rules. There are a host of other issues including different sports; and, private vs. public universities governed by state law, etc.

A simple solution for top-tier universities is to go professional. There is no law prohibiting a non-profit business from owning a for-profit subsidiary.

The University of Miami and the Miami Dolphins played on the same field in the Orange Bowl. During the Dolphins unbeaten 1972 season the Miami students were rabid Dolphin fans. Their school had a losing season that year. The university could have bought the Dolphins for a song.

The University of Chicago abandoned its football program in 1939 because its president, Maynard Hutchins, thought it was an “infernal nuisance.” This was the institution where its fabled coach, Amos Alonzo Stagg, amassed a record of 275 wins covering a 42-year period (314 wins over a 57-year career).

There always was talk about bringing back its glory years, so when we lived in Chicago during the halcyon years of the Chicago Bears, Mike Ditka and his 1985 Super Bowl champs, I often thought this well-endowed university should have bought the Bears. They play at Soldier Field right down the road from the university.

OK, maybe this is a bit too fanciful, but Division 1 (NCAA) schools could form a professional league with the same conferences, and recruit as they do now. This would avoid the charade of labeling players as student athletes. Pay the star players accordingly as in the pros.

Many students in cities with professional football, basketball and baseball teams are rabid fans of their professional teams as well as their college team. A good team that would be a subsidiary of a university should be a money-maker. School spirit would not be a challenge. After all, it still would be the school’s team.

This decision will be appealed to the full NLRB in Washington, and might wind up in the courts. Even if you are not a sports buff, this is another fascinating story of American culture changing.

We are still a capitalist country – at least for a while longer -and still believe in entrepreneurship with the profit motive – college administrators and the NCAA sure do. One would think that a college athlete, who strives to be the best and works long hours and takes a physical beating for our enjoyment, admirably qualifies as an entrepreneur.

John Reiniers is a retired attorney and regular columnist who lives in Spring Hill. Email him at

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