John Feehery: Speaking Engagements


NRLB Decision Points to a Broken System

Posted on March 27, 2014

ESPN reports:
“In a potentially game-changing moment for college athletics, the Chicago district of the National Labor Relations Board ruled on Wednesday that Northwestern football players qualify as employees of the university and can unionize.  NLRB regional director Peter Sung Ohr cited the players' time commitment to their sport and the fact that their scholarships were tied directly to their performance on the field as reasons for granting them union rights.”

I cite ESPN because if there is one organization most responsible for the titanic  influx of cash into college sports, it is the cable sports network.

Money has long been part of college football and basketball.   Big time college sports generate a lot of income to those universities that most aggressively participate in the system, and the pressures to perform are intense.

The result?  Skewed values and an inherently corrupt system.

The NCAA tries to impose a modicum of respectability on a rotten system.  Every once in a while, it levies penalties on those who break its rules, some of which are stupid, all of which are aimed at ripping off the college athletes who participate in the system.

The value proposition used to be roughly equal:  We give you four years of free education and you provide us all of the blood, sweat and tears you can muster.

But as the stakes have increased for the universities, that value proposition has become radically unbalanced.

Colleges now look for the best athletes, regardless of their academic attributes.  If these athletes can’t compete in the classroom, many schools, even supposedly good ones like North Carolina, give these kids an alternative:  Fake classes.

It has long been a joke that some of the top athletes have majored in basket-weaving or physical education.  But that joke is really not that funny.

If everybody is cheating, how can you differentiate between the real bad apples and just the run-of-the-mill cheaters?

The real bad apples end up winning the National Championships.

It is probably no shock that the SEC is now the king of college football, nor that John Calipari’s University of Kentucky is such a power in college basketball.

There aren’t too many scholars on those squads.

Calipari’s model is the most offensive.  He doesn’t expect or really want his players to spend more than a year or two at his school.    Hard to get a college education when you plan on staying in college for only one year.

I am not a big fan of the NRLB or of labor unions in general.  But this move by the National Relations Labor Board should serve as a wake-up call to all college presidents who theoretically are put in place to help educate our kids about, among other things, ethics.

These college athletes are being exploited by a system that won’t pay them for their hard work on their behalf.  In fact, the rules put in place by the NCAA explicitly prohibit payment.

There’s a word used to describe employees who don’t get paid by their employers:  slaves.

And to modern collegiate football and basketball system is not that far off from slavery.

The penalties placed on the athletes are far more harsh on those who don’t follow the rules than those placed on the institutions who routinely ignore the rules.

And kids who don’t measure up are often cast aside, abandoned, discarded, their dreams dashed and their efforts unrewarded.

You can say that these kids no what they are getting into and that nobody is forcing them to play college sports.

But if you are an aspiring athlete who wants to play football or basketball professionally, you have no real choice other than to play college sports.  You have no choice but to give submit yourself to backbreaking work for no pay in a college sports system that enriches the coaches, the commentators and the college Presidents, but pays nothing to the kids who are risking their lives playing these games.

The NRLB action is a wakeup call to a college system that is fundamentally broken.

What can the NCAA do to fix this problem?

It can insist on high standards for college athletes.  If you can’t make the grades, you can’t play the game.

It can pay college athletes a fair wage, based on the scale.  Every athlete gets paid the same, but they all get paid.

It can ban the one and done.  If you get a college scholarship, you can’t play your Freshman year.  And you have to get your diploma in five years or the university goes on probation.

It can strictly monitor what classes the kids take, to make sure there is no basket-weaving majors.

It can appoint an ombudsman at each university, hired by the NCAA, who is a resource to both teachers and the students.   If a coach is trying to slide by the rules or trying to game the system, the ombudsman would call a foul and the school would go on probation.

It would encourage the NFL and the NBA to create a minor league system, so that kids who aren’t college material have an alternative to play the games they love and to make it to the big time without going through this pretense that they have what it takes to actually get a college degree.

And it can start bringing some order to the craziness that has inflicted the football and basketball conferences.    All of this shifting around in the naked pursuit of a bigger purse is conduct unbecoming of the finest university system in the world.

College football and basketball is broken and it needs to be fixed.  I don’t love the NRLB but they have provided this system the wake-up call it has desperately needed for more than a long while.

Subscribe to the Feehery Theory Newsletter, exclusively on Substack.
Learn More