I admit it: I may have been wrong. As recently as a year ago, I wrote an essay in these pages explaining why the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s so-called amateur model would not break apart.
It has not occurred yet, but many signs point toward the end of the NCAA’s unpaid, never-allowed-to-be-paid college athlete.
Twenty-five years ago, I wrote College Sports Inc. and in the introduction disputed the NCAA’s “myth” that “College athletes are amateurs.... Reality: A school gives an athlete [particularly football and men’s basketball players] a full-ride grant in exchange for the athlete’s services in a commercial entertainment venture, namely playing on one of the school’s sports teams.”
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The main reaction to that argument by college sports fans, at least those who wrote or spoke to me, was “You’re crazy,” or, more politely, “You don’t understand the reality of the amateur student-athlete”; in addition, many members of the sports media, in interviews and book reviews, echoed those sentiments. Both groups also dismissed the book’s title and denied the commercialism of big-time college sports. (The editors of Inside Higher Ed, in their previous capacity, were among the few who took the book’s arguments seriously.)
In the years since then, as the commercialism of big-time college football and basketball multiplied geometrically, fewer and fewer people told me that I was “crazy” and that the NCAA’s “student-athlete” model worked well, especially in the major revenue sports. Many more people started to share my point of view and argue for better compensation for athletes than athletic scholarships.
When asked whether anything could change the system, I always replied that reform could not come from within -- the NCAA had billions of reasons, most of them in U.S. currency, to maintain the status quo. But change could come from outside, especially if an athlete brought a lawsuit challenging the NCAA’s “amateur model” and the courts found in the athlete’s favor.
Frankly, I was skeptical about that ever happening: the athlete would need to find a high-powered law firm that could fight and beat the NCAA’s legion of well-paid lawyers; in addition, if the athlete was still playing college sports, he or she would have to deal with a head coach and assistants who would probably be very hostile to the lawsuit and who also controlled the athlete’s playing time.
I did not foresee that a former college athlete, Ed O’Bannon, would begin the legal challenge to the NCAA by claiming that he deserved some money from the association’s use of his image in an EA Sports video game. But I totally agreed with his argument. Then an excellent law firm took his case and he was joined as plaintiff by some other former players, including Oscar Robertson. Nevertheless, I still believed that victory for the O’Bannon group was a long shot and I argued in my piece for Inside Higher Ed last year that if the NCAA lost, it would fight the case through higher courts and to the Supreme Court itself, and very well might, in the end, prevail.
The case has now progressed through the pre-trial stages, and recently O’Bannon’s lawyers narrowed the focus to concentrate on what the lead lawyer Michael Hausfeld described as “their priority ... to cause change to the system and structure of college sports” i.e., blow up the NCAA’s “amateur model."
In addition, O’Bannon’s lawyers intentionally avoided a jury trial and ensured that the presiding judge, Claudia Wilken, will hear the case. So far in her pre-trial rulings, she seems sympathetic to the arguments of the O’Bannon side but, of course, that is still far from a final verdict in their favor. (See news article about the trial's first day here.)
What happens if O’Bannon wins and the NCAA’s “amateur model” is ruled invalid? Will the NCAA, with almost infinitely deep pockets, take the fight through higher courts and eventually overturn the original verdict?
The consensus of many lawyers familiar with the case is that appeals succeed when the judge and/or trial lawyers screw up in a major way, e.g., seriously misinterpret the law or make some other egregious blunder. These same lawyers take the view that Judge Wilken so far has been very careful not to make errors, making a successful appeal unlikely.
If O’Bannon’s team prevails, the post-mortems will begin, as well as predictions and plans for a model of college sports to replace the amateur one. In last year’s essay, I predicted that if the courts rule against the NCAA, the association will get Congress to institute college athlete amateurism as law. I am much less certain about that outcome: the combination of legislative gridlock and, as recent Congressional hearings on college sports demonstrated, opposition to the NCAA makes a new law more like a NCAA “Hail Mary” pass than a two-yard plunge for a TD.
Thus, if O’Bannon wins, the future of the current college sports model could be seriously threatened.
I know one thing for certain: I hereby resign from the fortune-telling business.
Murray Sperber teaches in the Cultural Studies of Sport in Education program at the University of California at Berkeley.
The Ohio Department of Public Safety is giving bomb-sniffing dogs to three universities this week as part of an effort to expand campus security capabilities, the Associated Press reported. The dogs are trained not only for bomb detection but for help in managing security at large-scale events. Bowling Green State, Ohio State and Youngstown State Universities are receiving the dogs.
A new study from the National Bureau of Economic Research points to the financial advantages of letting donors designate where in a large university their money might be used. The study used two groups at Texas A&M University at College Station in which one was sent an appeal for the annual fund, and the other was sent a similar appeal, but with the chance to designate some of their gift to the college they attended within Texas A&M. The researchers found no significant difference in the rates at which donors made any gift. But those with the option to designate, if they gave, made larger contributions. The study was by Catherine Eckel and Jonathan Meer of Texas A&M, and David Herberich of the University of Chicago. An abstract of the study may be found here.
In the latest "This Week" audio newscast, the Lumina Foundation's Zakiya Smith and Ralph Kuncl of the University of Redlands discuss divisions among public and private college leaders about limits of federal accountability in higher education, the wisdom of trying to rise in the U.S. News college rankings, and more.
Adjuncts at Seattle University at odds with the administrative over their bid to form a union announced victory Wednesday. The claim was largely symbolic, since the ballots from their recent vote have been impounded by the National Labor Relations Board, pending the university’s appeal of the bid on the grounds that the institution is Roman Catholic and therefore outside NLRB jurisdiction. In a news release, adjunct professor Louisa Edgerly asked the university to drop its appeal, “respect the democratic process, and allow the votes to be counted.” The said adjuncts are “very confident” they won the vote to organize in affiliation with the Service Employees International Union, which is organizing adjuncts in metro areas across the country. In the Seattle area, Pacific Lutheran University adjuncts also have had their votes impounded, pending the university’s appeal of an adjunct union bid, also on religious grounds. A Seattle University spokeswoman did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
More than 11,000 graduate student workers across the University of California System have reached a tentative four-year contract agreement between their union, the UC Student-Worker Union/United Auto Workers 2865, and the university, they announced Wednesday. Negotiations lasted a year, through two strikes and additional threats of strike, including a pending one that appears to have been averted with the deal. Graduate student workers announced earlier this year they had successfully bargained for language ensuring access to adequate lactation stations and gender-neutral bathrooms, but there were outstanding issues.
According to details of the contract released by the union, graduate student workers have negotiated for language ensuring mechanisms for feedback about workload intensity, as well as access for undocumented students to the same professional options available to all graduate students. Wages will increase about 16 percent spanning four years and the childcare subsidy is up from $600 per quarter to $900, with an increase in the maximum age of eligible children. Paid parental leave also is up for birth parents from four weeks to six weeks. In a statement, the union said it had reached “new terrain” for labor unions generally with the contract, including the provisions for undocumented students and gender-neutral bathrooms. The union, which is currently working off of an expired contract, plans on a vote to ratify the new contract within the next few weeks. In a statement, Dwaine B. Duckett, system vice president of human resources, said that both said "worked hard, and we’re pleased to have reached this tentative agreement." He added: “We’re even more pleased that our students will finish the school year without any more unnecessary disruptions, and will have the valued assistance of our academic student employees.”
The University of Texas at Austin took down dress code reminders that some found offensive in its School of Nursing Wednesday, but not before they made waves among students and on social media. The signs, which a university spokesman said were posted Tuesday by a well-meaning but ultimately misguided part-time staff member, told students not to wear "revealing clothing" that "distracts from the learning environment." Among a list of prohibited items were short skirts and "low-cut shirts that reveal cleavage." A student reportedly took a picture of one of the signs and sent it to Jezebel, which ran a critical post. "Remember, ladies! If you want to study to be a nurse at the University of Texas, you can't show too much of your midriff and thigh!" the post reads. "Because if your patient sees too much of your 'distracting' skin, he or she might forget to stop dying while you're trying to treat them or something." The piece was picked up by other blogs, including Feminist Philosophers.
J.B. Bird, university spokesman, said the signs were up for a total of 18 hours, and did not accurately reflect the college's dress code. Bird said the School of Nursing is the only part of the university that has a dress code, and that it exists not to police student apparel but to prepare future nurses for a profession that has a strict dress code, mainly for safety reasons. The school code applies to all nursing students, including the college's approximately 100 men, he said. On a university Tumblr account Wednesday, Gayle Timmerman, associate dean of academic affairs at the nursing school, said: "The signs we have taken down were not an accurate reflection of our policy. We’re not in the business of measuring skirt lengths. We are in the business of educating a new generation of nurses."