It all began with the communists. The Soviets and East German women, with their bulging gym shorts and five-o’clock shadows, who won all those Olympic medals in the 1960s weren’t amateurs. They were full-time state employees. The Reds were cheaters. Meanwhile, in the free world, another secretive power was creating a sports empire the capitalist way, as the National Collegiate Athletic Association built a multi-billion-dollar business on the carefully cultivated image of the student-athlete. It seemed like a good deal: colleges got millions, and student-athletes got free educations for playing a game they loved, opportunities for lucrative professional careers, and adulation from fans.
But as the NCAA grew its business beyond expectations, cracks appeared. Management thrived – coaches are often their states’ highest-paid employees. But the laborers, ever bigger and faster, battling in the trenches below thousands of rabid fans, are getting shafted. After working 40-50-hour weeks, 2% of college football players make the NFL, where the average career is under six years and the prognosis is “a dramatically shortened life span.”
This may be changing, Last week, the National Labor Relations Board ruled that Northwestern’s scholarship football players are university employees, eligible to form a union and negotiate for wages and benefits. The NLRB exposed the charade of big-time college athletic programs. But is the remedy to pay professional workers to provide entertainment in college stadiums? Does a university really fulfill its mission by paying its “players” minimum wage so it can cheat them out of a $200,000 education?