Are college athletes employees of the universities for which they compete?
The athletes, for the most part, say yes – and that they deserve liveable wages and health care protection for injuries they might suffer.
Universities, for the most part, say no – as does the NCAA, which continues to perpetuate the myth that “student-athletes” are getting the fine value of an education while they happen to play sports.
But this week, football coaches at a couple of those universities provided an unintended peek at exactly how they regard those athletes.
On Tuesday, Cincinnati coach Tommy Tuberville and athletic director Mike Bohn told ESPN that the school would consider disciplining players by taking money from a “Cost of Attendance” stipend that new NCAA rules provide to athletes. Virginia Tech defensive coordinator Bud Foster floated the same idea Wednesday to reporters.
Schools determine how much, if any, COA money an athlete receives. Cincinnati athletes will get about $7,000 in cost of attendance money this year, among the highest in the country. At Virginia Tech, the total is about $3,200.
“These guys now, they haven’t had access to money unless they’ve been Pell Grant recipients,” Foster said. “So they’ll want that when it’s all said and done at the end of the day.”
Never mind how bad it looks for coaches making six or seven figures a year to be taking pizza money away from their players instead of benching them or making them run stairs.
Or that those players, at least in sports like football, are responsible for the millions of dollars that flow into athletic departments each year.
Taking that money also might be an NCAA violation. And it certainly would indicate an employer-employee relationship, according to labor law experts.
That’s probably why Virginia Tech athletic director Whit Babcock quickly scrambled to tamp down Foster’s comments, saying his defensive coordinator “misspoke” and that “nobody had gotten fined under the new system.” A video board in the players’ lounge, which showed a schedule of fines for “improper equipment,” suggested otherwise.
Even more revealing were comments from other coaches, who said they’ve long used discipline like taking away a player’s travel per diem or road trip mileage reimbursement. As Foster said: “We’re not in a position to fire anyone right now. We can fine them a little bit.”
What recourse do athletes have? Pretty much nothing. That’s partly why football players at Northwestern University have tried to unionize, only to have the National Labor Relations Board squash the effort this month by declining to rule on their case. The NLRB’s lame reasoning: Its ruling would apply only to the 17 private schools in the football playoff subdivision, not the 100 public universities. That could create a competitive imbalance.
The NLRB left the door open for future attempts at unionization, and it left unanswered the question of whether so-called “student-athletes” are also employees. As football coaches reminded us this week, they sure aren’t getting treated like any other students.