Leveling the Playing Field II: A Monopoly on Morals

Collegiate amateurism is not a moral issue, it is an economic camouflage for monopoly practice.”  

-Walter Byers, former NCAA Executive Director and architect of the current NCAA amateurism model.

Since writing my first blog post on this topic in May, several things have transpired that I’d like to share regarding the scholarship contract between student-athletes, colleges/universities, and the NCAA. I, and many others, believe that this contract needs to be renegotiated to represent the interests of student-athletes, rather than politicians and universities. Fortunately, some steps have been taken this year to get there.

First Steps

First, under the leadership of Lt. Governor Dan Forest, the enacted 2018 North Carolina State Budget established the Legislative Commission of the Fair Treatment of College Athletes. This is a huge step forward in the ability to level the playing field for student-athletes everywhere.

This commission will gather information, investigate, and then recommend steps to the North Carolina General Assembly, finally establishing a place at the table and a voice for student-athletes.  While not all of the barriers to providing healthcare and other supports for student-athletes have been eliminated, this commission represents a strong move in the right direction. By shining a light on the issues faced by student-athletes, Lt. Governor Forest has taken notice of those who see state universities’ arrangements with the NCAA as unfair and tilted in favor of powerful interests.

Secondly, on May 14, 2018, the U.S. Supreme Court voted 6-3 in favor of the state of New Jersey in the gambling case between the state’s Governor Murphy and NCAA. The court said: “The federal law violated constitutional principles limiting the federal government from controlling state policy, unconstitutionally forcing states to prohibit sports betting under their own laws.”  This decision aligns with the position that college athletics and the NCAA are profit-making enterprises, despite the organization’s non-profit classification. Like professionals in the NFL, college athletes participate in an activity where bets are being placed on their performance — while some are not even old enough to place bets themselves. Universities, colleges, and the NCAA are still securing massive gains through the deceptive promise of a meaningful education, which many student-athletes ultimately never receive.  And many — whether they achieved academic success or not — suffer from serious health issues that could have been prevented through a more conscientious NCAA healthcare policy.

So what’s next?

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional for the federal government to interfere with state government sports betting laws, while “College amateurism” is still maintained as a method to undermine federal laws like the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA).   Ultimately, student-athletes are not being paid, yet a huge amount of their schedules are taken up with practice and other team activities. Their university makes big profits off the football team’s victories and performance, while the players take on the game’s physical toll. They then forfeit their health insurance upon graduation, even though many of the medical problems linked to play in college football appear after the player leaves school.  This Supreme Court decision equates NCAA football with the NFL, so while it is unrealistic for the NCAA to pay NFL salaries, they can strive to provide meaningful support for student-athletes, who are often not from affluent families and have no source of income.

In return for their performance, the student-athletes are supposed to get a university education — something of little use if you damaged your brain in the process of receiving it.  In fact, in a recent study examining the brains of former NFL players, 110 of 111 showed signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain disease.  Even for those who made it through unscathed, a university degree is a reward of varying worth.  The value of a degree depends on the university, the major, and the job market. Each football player is risking their long-term health for a prize of indeterminate value, using their talents for the financial benefit of the university, and only being provided health care during the years the player is enrolled in school.  That’s not fair, and it should not continue.

Pulling Back the Curtain

Referencing Byers’ quote at the beginning of the post:  “Collegiate amateurism is not a moral issue, it is an economic camouflage for monopoly practice.”  By monopoly practice, Byers means that the NCAA has monopoly control — if a player wants to continue in college football, he has no option but to adhere to NCAA contracts and guidelines.  The economic camouflage is the idea of “college amateurism”, and by extension, the “student-athlete” was created for tax purposes.

It is clear that the current arrangement is designed to allow the NCAA to skirt labor laws and places players at greater risk as they move into their post-college life.  While student-athletes may receive the benefit of an education, they put themselves at great physical risk to receive it. The NCAA should better protect and support these athletes as they achieve in the classroom and on the football field.

David Collins

David Collins

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