Taylor Batten

As NCAA business thrives, athletes left on sidelines


Have you ever felt guilty for celebrating something maybe you shouldn’t have celebrated?

I did it last year when Hall & Oates announced they were coming to town. Then I did it again Wednesday night.

I was thumbing through my email when my heart skipped a beat. Duke had made an offer to Marvin Bagley III, the best sophomore basketball player in the nation. I started drooling over his numbers: 19.6 points per game, 10.3 rebounds, 2.4 blocks. As a high school freshman!

My beloved Blue Devils have been on a roll, but this might take the cake. A national championship last spring. Another top class arriving this fall. A declaration by the Sporting News that Duke has had the nation’s top program since 2000. And now an early jump on perhaps another superstar? Heck yes!

But wait a second. Bagley’s just a sophomore, 16 years old. He was barely 14 when he got his first scholarship offer. Then three more college offers came in – right after finishing seventh grade.

As a fan, I have to reconcile my love of the games and my alma mater with the fact that schools and the NCAA exploit kids, calling them “student athletes” and making billions off their labor while giving them relatively little in return. At some schools, they don’t even truly get the free education that is supposed to be the underpinning of the entire system.

The players’ fight got no easier this week when the National Labor Relations Board stopped Northwestern University football players from unionizing. The federal panel surprisingly declared, after 17 months of consideration, that it didn’t have authority over the case. That effectively ended the Northwestern players’ efforts to be treated like other employees and doused any similar nascent efforts by players at other schools.

It was a cop-out by the NLRB, which just didn’t want to take the heat. An NLRB regional director, Peter Sung Ohr, had ruled last year that the players were employees. He cited, among other things, the 50-hour work weeks they put in as team members. Those efforts bring in $30 million a year for Northwestern.

The five-member NLRB didn’t disagree but punted, saying a ruling would not “promote stability in labor relations.” That answered the question without answering it, and it leaves the system with the status quo: an all-powerful NCAA and member schools using their athletes to make billions that everyone shares in except the players themselves. They are essentially serfs for the NCAA.

“They are running a multibillion-dollar business and selling these players at every opportunity,” ESPN basketball analyst Jay Bilas of Charlotte told me Thursday. “All these schools have partnerships and multimillion-dollar deals with shoe companies and use the players like billboards, and players are the only ones who can’t participate in the business.”

Despite the ruling, the very existence of the case, along with court opinions and rising public awareness, have nudged the NCAA into slowly changing its ways. It allowed certain conferences to provide larger scholarships and unlimited meals. Some conferences are now guaranteeing four-year scholarships rather than deciding whether to renew them each year.

The NCAA is still Goliath, and it won this round with the NLRB. Even so, someday we might look back at the Northwestern challenge and see it as the beginning of the end of the NCAA’s hegemony.

Maybe then we can start enjoying college sports without feeling at least a little guilty about it, too.