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Tuesday, March 26, 2019

Feb. 14 (Bloomberg) — So the National Labor Relations Board hearings on the Northwestern University football team’s proposal to form a union have just gotten under way, and we already have our first howler.

Here it is, from the mouth of Northwestern’s vice president for university relations, Alan K. Cubbage: “We do not regard, and have never regarded, our football program as a commercial enterprise.” OK, Alan, but you may be the only ones who don’t. How, exactly, is an entity that sells tickets to its events — not to mention the national TV rights to broadcast those events — not engaging in commerce?

Not surprisingly, the claim — that big-time college sports do not represent commercial activity — has been consistently rejected by the courts. It also directly contradicts various statements made by the National Collegiate Athletic Association and its current and former officials.

Consider, for instance, a strategic report written in 2011 for the University of California at Davis by ex-NCAA president Cedric Dempsey. Davis had recently moved up from Division II to Division I, and the partly related fallout — specifically, the decision to cut some non-revenue-generating sports — had kicked up controversy on campus. Dempsey, who had become a consultant after leaving the NCAA, was hired to explain to everyone how the world of big-time college sports works. As he put it, Division II still uses an “educational model” that relishes “the history of noble amateurism.” Division I, by contrast, is run on more of a “business model,” with schools investing resources in the sports with the greatest potential to generate revenue. Hmmm.

Dempsey’s successor at the NCAA, Myles Brand, put an even finer point on it. In a 2006 speech to NCAA members, Brand explained that “commercial activity” — like selling broadcast rights — is mandated by the “business plan.” The failure to “maximize revenues,” he said, would be “incompetence at best and malfeasance at worst.”

It was just one of many occasions that Brand used to push the NCAA to embrace commerce — or to more enthusiastically embrace its commercial roots, which actually predate the existence of the organization itself. The very first intercollegiate competition, a regatta between Harvard and Yale on Lake Winnipesaukee in 1852, was the brainchild of the superintendent of the Boston, Concord and Montreal Railroad, who figured it would help fill his cars. It did. Before long, the Harvard-Yale regatta was an annual event to which both schools were selling tickets.

From these humble beginnings, big-time college sports were born. Now, a handful of collegiate football players wants a seat at the table where workplace conditions are being discussed. And the school that’s trying to deny them that seat apparently can’t come up with a more compelling argument than the self-evidently stupid claim that a multi-billion-dollar industry is not a commercial enterprise.

(Jonathan Mahler is a Bloomberg View columnist. Follow him on Twitter at @jonathanmahler.)

Photo: Party_Of_Five via Flickr

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10 responses to “Since When Is College Football Not A Business?”

  1. Sand_Cat says:

    I believe in union representation, but what do college football players hope to gain from it? It would be interesting to see their demands.

  2. Daniel Jones says:

    It IS a business. As the aphorism goes, “It stops being amateur when they start paying the coach”, and more so when the school hopes to profit from the game!

    • daniel bostdorf says:

      Correct it is a business. A business of buying and selling talent without regard to the rights of those being bought and sold.

  3. Jimmy Agler says:

    This is getting ridiculous. Tuition for 4 years,room and board at NU,free tutors,free medical care,free books and upgraded food via training table. All of this comes out to well over 50k a year I think a lot of us would gladly be so “exploited”. Then there is the Title 9 argument,if you think a few dozen lawyers already don’t have that baby written up and ready to file the minute they agree to pay the football players only(SEC plan) your crazy. There is a simple way to end this debate once and for all and it would even be fair. You can be free to make any money you want off your name,image etc, but you lose everything you currently get. That means while johnny football can make 100k for signing autographs the 3rd string center is on his own too. Put it up to a vote and see what happens. I can’t wait for the backup nose tackle to go and ask the star QB to pay his rent and tuition and see where it gets him.

  4. daniel bostdorf says:

    College football, like slavery and the Roman Gladiators of past, is a business.

    Big business college football needs to create a herd of cattle to buy and sell for profit. It takes younger calfs, props them up, feeds them and expects no complaining about it….because, afterall, it’s just business, nothing personal.

    Ok–steal Africans from Africa, round them up, feed them, house them and put them up for auction. Nothing wrong with that? Oh yeah there was and is!

    Same thing with the Romans who took the best of their conquered men and fed them, housed, them, forced them to fight and if they complained they were killed…endless supply of capture warriors to show for profit eh??

    2014–from the article:

    “It was just one of many occasions that Brand used to push the NCAA to embrace commerce — or to more enthusiastically embrace its commercial roots, which actually predate the existence of the organization itself. The very first intercollegiate competition, a regatta between Harvard and Yale on Lake Winnipesaukee in 1852, was the brainchild of the superintendent of the Boston, Concord and Montreal Railroad, who figured it would help fill his cars. It did. Before long, the Harvard-Yale regatta was an annual event to which both schools were selling tickets…….From these humble beginnings, big-time college sports were born. Now, a handful of collegiate football players wants a seat at the table where workplace conditions are being discussed. And the school that’s trying to deny them that seat apparently can’t come up with a more compelling argument than the self-evidently stupid claim that a multi-billion-dollar industry is not a commercial enterprise.”

    Either you shut up and play football or else…sound familiar?
    3000 year old business model…

    Now it is called American College Football…

  5. Allan Richardson says:

    As much as I love to root for my Gators, I know that for every college at that level of athletics, there are basically two kinds of students: those who pay tuition and/or get an academic scholarship (from the school or a third party such as ROTC) and are expected to make progress toward an academically significant degree, or else; and those who get athletic scholarships, are expected to put their sport above academics, and are given “easy” degree programs and tutors to bring them up to a semblance of college level work even in those programs (because, unlike academic scholarships and regular students, they are often recruited regardless of academic readiness for college). If athletes are talented and hard working enough to be BOTH good athletes and good students, that’s a bonus (and good PR material), but it is not their main expectation. I did know one student-athlete in one of my classes, and he was apparently one of the better students.

    Scholarship athletes are only given the scholarship itself, not even a minor petty cash spending allowance, which most students sent by their parents do get. Those who come from poor neighborhoods and families are mixing with those who have more money, and peer pressure along with the attraction of “going pro” early tempts them to accept sources of income that their “amateur” status renders illegal. It has been suggested for many years that these “amateur” athletes receive a modest stipend for miscellaneous expenses, possibly the minimum wage or a bit more for the hours spent attending and playing in games. This might be one of the demands made by unionized players.

    And every scholarship athlete is at risk of having not only his athletic career, but his academic career and the chance of getting a “regular” job requiring a college degree, ended by an unexpected injury. Some are fortunate, as was a young football player of my generation who attended our rival, Florida State University, named Burt Reynolds. Suffering an injury that disqualified him for varsity football (but not from normal activity), he lost his scholarship very early (I believe it was in his first year), but was able to get an acting role in a movie, so his career turned out OK in the end. Many are not so lucky; they have no other source of college funds, and so have to drop out indefinitely, usually forever. One possible union demand would be scholarship insurance, which would pay for the rest of their expected four year education at the same rate as their athletic scholarship in case of a career ending injury. The insurance company could pay the scholarship, not the athletic department, so it would not count against the school’s quota, after the injury.

    These are some reasonable demands that a player’s union in college athletics might want. Of course, if the NCAA mandates them first, the call for a union might go away.

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