As Northwestern football players push for the right to unionize, commentators jump to the contested issue of whether or not student athletes should receive salaries for their athletic services. Rodney Fort, author of 15 Sports Myths, weighs in on the issue.
Two weeks ago the National Labor Relations Board made waves when Judge Peter Sung Ohr ruled that Northwestern football players have the right to unionize. Judge Ohr characterized the relationship between student athletes and their universities as primarily an economic one owing to the amount of control coaches exert over athletes, and the contingent nature of athletic scholarships—students receive aid if, and only if, they lend their athletic talent to the school’s sports teams. Though the Northwestern football players aren’t pushing for any radical changes to the compensation system, economists and sports writers have noted more generally that the creation of student athlete labor unions would likely lead to more pressure for a pay-for-play system.
Pay-for-play—a source of longstanding debate in collegiate sports administration circles—would effectively make athletes salaried employees of their athletic departments. It’s a lightning rod issue, with both vociferous proponents and staunchly opposed status-quoers. Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott, recently pitched his tent in the opponents’ camp, declaring that the move to characterize student athletes as employees “may well destroy” college sports. Scott’s chief allegation—that revenue-generating sports teams would hog profits and resources, leaving non-revenue sports to flounder—is one of a handful of myths surrounding the pay-for-play debate, according to authors Rodney Fort and Jason Winfree.
In their recent book, 15 Sports Myths and Why They’re Wrong, Fort and Winfree pull apart popular misconceptions surrounding both professional and collegiate sports. One of the many myths they debunk is that pay-for-play is unfeasible at the college level, and though both profess agnosticism on the issue of whether student athletes ought to be paid, they are significantly more committal when it comes to getting the facts straight on the arguments surrounding student athlete compensation.
We checked in with 15 Sports Myths co-author Rodney Fort to get his two cents on the NLRB decision and its potential implications for college athletics.
I know the Twitterverse and blogosphere are alive with crystal ball gazing—and many of the commentaries I’ve read have been thinly veiled attempts to impose what one would like to see rather than what might actually happen. I’m typically loath to do the Madame Olga routine myself, but that hasn’t stopped others from claiming that there’s a distinct possibility that the movement for pay-for-play may take hold.
Ohio legislators sure think so, since they are already making a bill that explicitly states college athletes are not employees in Ohio. But for now the decision is limited to NU football players. And their initial moves will prove instructive. Even the organizers state that they are not after full pay-for-play, but an improvement in working conditions—grants-in-aid to full cost of attendance, health care coverage, injury benefits even beyond college playing time, and the ability to more easily obtain emergency funding. Which brings to light the very first challenge that one would expect to occur under this limited scenario. NU will not bargain away its membership in the NCAA. If a football union attempts to bargain for anything that violates the NCAA amateur definition, NU will say no and point out that it would be irreparably damaged. Players, through their union leadership, will also recognize this is not in their best interests. So, I would expect the players to find everything outside the NCAA amateur definition and move to restructure compensation along those lines. And that is all that will happen for quite a few years. Interestingly, the NCAA has been slowly moving along those lines anyway so I wouldn’t expect any real push back in the early stages.
I’ll give the tried-and-true economist response: “It Depends.” Nobody has chosen any among the many ways that pay-for-play can be structured and walked through everything about that particular model to gain insight into the outcome. Will it be a free agent free-for-all? Will it be structured inside of a collective bargaining outcome way off in the future? Will it be imposed by a break away from the NCAA? Will it be free market oriented or command and control in small increments through the NCAA redefining what it means to be an “amateur”? In 15 Sports Myths, Winfree and I are careful to stay within the general notion of “restructuring compensation” so we can take on myths like, “Athletic Departments already lose money so pay-for-play (or Title IX) will just drive many departments to lower levels of play.” From our chosen level of generality, this type of claim is simply incorrect and misleading and, we argue, purposefully proliferated by those who benefit from the myth. I don’t think anybody can make a call on the sustainability of a particular pay-for-play mechanism until said mechanism is fully specified.
Mr. Scott’s public statements employ another myth we cover in 15 Sports Myths, namely, that football and men’s basketball are net revenue centers and the proceeds go to cover the rest of the sports that can’t pay their own way. The premise is untrue and so then must be the conclusion. Very few athletic departments even have a net positive result in the two men’s sports. So by and large, most other sports are run on a break-even basis based on their value to the university at large, mainly financed by institutional support from the university administration to athletics. And the threat that it would be women’s sports that would bear the brunt, counter to Title IX advances, is simply bluster. Again, these observations are at a very general level and hold true. But remember, nobody has actually put forth a concrete proposal for pay-for-play and analyzed it through the lens of university decision-making.
Rodney Fort is Professor of Sport Management at the University of Michigan. He is internationally recognized as an authority on sports economics and business. His bestselling textbook, Sports Economics, is in its third edition. He is also co-author of Pay Dirt, Hard Ball, and, most recently, 15 Sports Myths and Why They're Wrong.