With another fire to put out—just a well-worn ritual at this point—the NCAA responded the only way it knows how: by leaving the extinguisher untouched on the wall, instead dousing the flames with enough gasoline to power a Prius for months.
This is nothing new, of course. The NCAA’s PR department has assumed this pinata role plenty over the past 18 months. It’s not just because it is forced to constantly defend a flawed system; it’s how it goes about standing up for it. It’s the wording, the tone, the overall delivery and the calculated ability to focus on critical pronouncements with blinders firmly in place.
The latest example arrived when it was learned, first through ESPN's Outside The Lines, that National College Players Association president Ramogi Huma has teamed up with Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter—along with teammates—in an effort to create a union for the players.
"The No. 1 thing that I want to accomplish is to finally give athletes a true voice," Colter told Yahoo! Sports’ Dan Wetzel. "They need to finally have a seat at the table when rules and regulations are determined. They need an entity in place that can negotiate on the players' behalf and have their best interests in mind.”
The NCPA has already outlined its goals well before the lengthy battle:
1. Minimize college athletes’ brain trauma risks.
2. Raise the scholarship amount.
3. Prevent players from being stuck paying sports-related medical expenses.
4. Increase graduation rates.
5. Protect educational opportunities for student-athletes in good standing.
6. Prohibit universities from using a permanent injury suffered during athletics as a reason to reduce/eliminate a scholarship.
7. Establish and enforce uniform safety guidelines in all sports to help prevent serious injuries and avoidable deaths.
8. Eliminate restrictions on legitimate employment and players' ability to directly benefit from commercial opportunities.
9. Prohibit the punishment of college athletes that have not committed a violation.
10. Guarantee that college athletes are granted an athletic release from their university if they wish to transfer schools.
11. Allow college athletes of all sports the ability to transfer schools one time without punishment.
It’s not just the cash grab one might assume when talking about student-athlete compensation; rather, it's a detailed breakdown of critical areas the sport should address. It’s hoping to push these goals into the discussion—which it already has—and perhaps take it a step or two further.
Of course, saying you want to unionize and actually unionizing are two very different processes—the latter will take time and a say from the National Labor Relations Board. That didn’t stop the NCAA from responding to this significant development only a few hours after it began gaining steam.
The NCAA’s press release stated the following:
This union-backed attempt to turn student-athletes into employees undermines the purpose of college: an education. Student-athletes are not employees, and their participation in college sports is voluntary. We stand for all student-athletes, not just those the unions want to professionalize.
Many student athletes are provided scholarships and many other benefits for their participation. There is no employment relationship between the NCAA, its affiliated institutions or student-athletes.
Student-athletes are not employees within any definition of the National Labor Relations Act or the Fair Labor Standards Act. We are confident the National Labor Relations Board will find in our favor, as there is no right to organize student-athletes.
There are many places to begin, but let’s start here. The NCAA decided to send these items out through its Twitter account as well, triggering the flood of responses you could have anticipated.
This union-backed attempt to turn student-athletes into employees undermines the purpose of college: an education.— Inside the NCAA (@InsidetheNCAA) January 28, 2014
Technically, the NCAA is right. The purpose of college, at its very roots, is to educate students before they move on with their professional careers. How it could possibly lean on this crutch in its opening defense against a potential union, however, speaks to the unswerving deafness of the organization.
If this is only about education, then let’s talk about the television money that is now flooding the sport. Let’s discuss the salaries of head and assistant coaches, which take on a slightly different “for the love of education” feel.
It’s an enormously successful business, one that thrives on keeping its employees—the players, despite its unwillingness to qualify them as such—capped in their ability to earn compensation. This, unlike the NCAA’s questionable interpretation of the word “employees,” is not up for debate. It’s why the NCAA is as reactionary and protective as it has been and will continue to be.
If you had a golden goose that was protected by enormous steel walls, you would still put up a chain-link fence just beyond them, an extra layer of unnecessary padding, just to be careful.
But as the organization lines up to fight this early concept of a union—standing stern at this first wobbly blockade—it fails to address the key components this proposed group is hoping to bring up. In the greater interest of the business model, it responded to a well-thought-out plan in its infant stages with a simple “shoo” hand gesture.
Education, the NCAA’s current form of currency, is indeed the key component of this conversation. And while the NCAA can deflect anything more with what felt like an out-of-the-office response, there are real issues worth addressing. It’s the very reason this bold concept is being tossed around to begin with.
More significant than the notion of the union—which is unlikely to eventually be recognized—are some of the things for which it will fight. Money will obviously be a huge part of this, but not in the same direct exchange many assume it to be.
Brain trauma, medical expenses and protection of scholarships are all on the itinerary. So why run from it? These are items that warrant an educated response—or, at the very least, more than the NCAA is willing to provide right now.
Instead, the NCAA has decided to return fire with a deep yawn, a hearty denial and manufactured arrogance with a hearty pour of gasoline. None of which is surprising in the least.
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