The NCAA has more crises on its plate than Malaysian Airlines.
And after a ruling in Chicago this week by a regional National Labor Relations Board arbitrator, it’s staring into an abyss similar to the uncharted depths of the southern Indian Ocean.
The National Collegiate Athletic Association faces multiple threats, including overly powerful leagues, like the SEC in football and the ACC in basketball. It must face the reality that most college athletes in major sports graduate at abysmal rates. It overreached and overreacted from a position of insecurity on its recent discipline cases, notably with Penn State after the Sandusky scandal and Ohio State after its tatoo issues. And it must contend with the realities that television, Nike, Under Armour, the NFL, NBA and NHL rule college sports more than the NCAA.
So it had to be hearing a gallows being built in the background as its officials read the NLRB decision. Athletes at Northwestern University won the right to organize in a union, as employees, not students. The exploited gained power against the exploiter.
Symbolically this was an athletic Emancipation Proclamation.
While colleges and universities reap tens of millions of dollars a year from the major sports, athletes receive a pittance by percentage. Yes, there is value in a $100,000 college education, even if it’s a $250,000 education paid at some universities’ tuition, room and board rates. But even multiplied by 53 football players or 15 basketball players, the compensation is a negligible and negligent.
But as Juliet Macur wrote in The New York Times:
…it’s not all about money, said Georges Niang, a sophomore forward at Iowa State. It’s about athletes’ voices “being heard.” It’s about being more than just a powerless commodity.
In our history, Americans have exploited numerous powerless commodities — immigrant labor; women paid less than men; single parents scraping by for their children; the under-educated; veterans; people with disabilities. The littany is as rich as it is sad.
That’s why this ruling gives so much hope. It will be appealed, and a handful of years from now will probably reach the U.S. Supreme Court in some form. If the athletes win at that level, how the NCAA’s billions are spread will likely become more equitable.
How is the NCAA reacting to this crisis? As it usually does, pushing surrogates out front, pretending it’s business as usual, when everyone else can see the rioters at the NCAA’s gates.
In what now seems like quaint times, tennis players who for generations had lived as scam amateurs, forced the “open” era, being paid for playing as entertainers and competitors. Olympic athletes soon followed. I had friends in college who competed in the Olympics before the “open” Olympics in Los Angeles in 1984. They were paid, just not with a paycheck. They received four bicycles for training, so they could sell two or three; they received three stereo systems from a sponsor for their relaxation hours, so they could do the same. The hypocrisy was clear.
The NCAA would do well to start working toward a solution that might save it. Transparency, taking responsibility for its shortcomings, mistakes and outright failures should replace the arrogance of power. The NCAA is the modern version of a sweatshop operator or coal mine owner trying to fight inevitable organizing by exploited employees.
The writing is on the proverbial wall, in a 29-page NLRB decision. It’s not a Magna Carta, Declaration of Independence or the real Emancipation Proclamation. But for college athletes, it might as well be.
The content of this blog is about crisis management and mismanagement in a digital age. It originates with Steve Bell, who spent 30 years as a journalist for the Associated Press and in four top editor positions at The Buffalo News. He is now Partner/Director of Public Affairs and Crisis and Reputation Management at Eric Mower + Associates, one of the nation’s largest independent advertising, integrated marketing and public relations agencies, with seven offices in the East. Learn more about EMA at mowerpr.com/crisisready. Steve’s blog is based on his own opinions and does not represent the views or positions of Eric Mower + Associates.