In the wake of last week’s ruling declaring Northwestern football players employees of the university, Argun Ulgen worries that we will just wind up trading one type of corporate culture for another.
Is litigation a culture changer?
It depends, but the National Labor Relation Board’s seminal ruling that Northwestern University football players can unionize was widely labeled as just that, one which put a dent in the NCAA’s power to relegate student athletes to “amateur status” when they are really “employees” whose hours of work translate to television revenue.
But is the NCAA the root cause of cultural problems in college sports practices? Are litigious dents in that organization’s authority merely tinkering with a problematic culture to keep it operating smoothly rather than really changing it for the greater good?
Treating student-athletes unfairly is not exclusive to the NCAA. The organization may be a powerful one, but the NCAA’s wattage is in large part generated by our higher education’s corporate culture. That is to say that even if the NCAA’s candle somehow fades, a new corporate student-athlete culture will emerge, one with a catchy new acronym and a fresh batch of zero-sum business tenants.
Because as it currently stands, the NCAA doesn’t force private universities to spend 9 times more on athletes than they do on non student-athletes. It doesn’t force schools to charge non-athletes thousands of dollars in order to fund athletic departments, nor does it compel those schools to try and hide those fees under “general” non-delineated fee disclosures or on deliberately difficult to access web pages.
The NCAA doesn’t encourage mid-major schools to hire $1 million head-coaches, whose salaries represent a sizable percentage of the school athletic department’s total revenue. It doesn’t force those schools to pay their coaches massive incentive bonuses if they win basketball games. The NCAA also does not instill in universities a breathless branding and advertising culture rife with multi-million dollar social media campaigns to sell college student-athletes as national icons.
What is lost in all the vitriol against the NCAA’s exploitation of student-athletes is that the organization alone didn’t conjure up these wild spending practices. Rather, they are drummed up by ultra-competitive athletic directors and coaches, each of whom is culturally accepted as the most important and financially powerful man on his respective campus, whose “arms-race” style of spending is part and parcel of college sports culture.
Indeed, University DNA dictates that the Johnny Manziels of the world are worth more than the 300 lb. partial-scholarship linebacker playing with bruises and spasms each week, or for that matter, the bio-chemistry major putting in an extra 50 hours of research to meet his or her grant requirements to find a new DNA strand to cure cancer. These cultural codes supersede the NCAA.
Sure enough, as shall be built on the flood of suits, countersuits, motions, orders, re-orders, and appeals to emerge from the NLRB’s watershed ruling, university student-athlete culture could very well become even more unabashedly corporate than the current NCAA one. Eventually, each university will have more financial latitude to pursue top student-athletes than through an NCAA scholarship alone.
What schools will do with that new power is speculative, but a good guess would be that lucrative TV deals and ultra-competitive results-oriented thinking will guide their contract rates at potentially a greater expense to less profitable student athletics, if not just the resources of your plain ol’ Student Non-Athlete.
Moreover, if one thinks that the current amount of hours devoted to student athletics is excessive under the NCAA brand, what will happen under a University Employment contract? What can we imagine a coach saying to his six-figure, 19-year-old athlete who is only putting in the minimum contract hours, if for no other reason than that he can study a little more?
Insofar as litigation may alter the NCAA’s rules or weaken its reign, our system of higher education will find new ways to maximize profits from student-athlete labor. Some student-athletes—but maybe just the most profitable ones—will have unionized legal recourse to address their grievances. That’s an invaluable thing, but it is also essentially the same thing: an acceptance that the prevailing university corporate culture is firmly in place, and that a long, arduous, and expensive litigious process may be available to some students to eek out even the most basic of workplace rights.
Why weren’t, say, women’s basketball players brought into the Northwestern student-athletes’ petition to unionize? The answer to be sure is legal logistics, but that in turn defeats the spirit of unionization, which is to bring together a diverse democracy of workers looking to rectify a shared cultural grievance of basic mistreatment. In this regard, a union to change (or at least improve) a corporate college culture that favors University brass over its students needs to be more inclusive. Really, it needs to include both student athlete and non-athlete.
Because be it “salary” or “scholarship,” most athletes and non-athletes are living in the same collegiate world; one where they are wading neck deep in future student-debt with exorbitant loan rates; trying to achieve top grades to compete in a recession economy all while universities spend their tuition dollars on amenities such as upscale gymnasiums, four-star dining, and state of the art entertainment and athletic stadiums. Some of these students may not be entitled to a student-athlete “wage,” but they are all entitled to enter our workforce without the albatross of unpaid debt hanging around their necks.
For all but a select few students, it’s necessary to address the general ethos associated with our current corporate college culture: four years, “the best of your life,” at costs with crippling interest rates. As long as millions of students enter into this miasma without questioning the flawed wisdom or working together to rectify it, nothing’s really going to change. Because this kind of perpetuated culture impels rash, self-serving behavior: the very qualities that keep the zero-sum game game going, that will serve to replace the NCAA old guard with a new guard of college athletics with the very same mentality.
Photo: AP/Paul Beaty