Sally Jenkins, the Washington Post columnist who previously rationalized for Lance Armstrong and Joe Paterno, has some thoughts about college athlete compensation, and they weren’t exactly well-founded.
Colter and his peers aren’t laborers due compensation; they are highly privileged scholarship winners who get a lot of valuable stuff for free. This includes first-rate training in the habits of high achievement, cool gear, unlimited academic tutoring for gratis and world-class medical care that no one else has access to.
Inconceivable amounts of revenue are generated on the backs of college football and basketball players’ labor. Almost all of it goes to coaches and administrators. Scholarships and tutoring and medical care (much of which is in response to injuries sustained athletically) are not mutually exclusive with additional compensation.
To understand just how erroneous and ill-serving Ohr’s ruling is, ask yourself some simple questions. If Kain Colter is an exploited laborer, then is a female tennis player at Stanford an exploited laborer, too? Is a lacrosse player at Virginia an exploited laborer? Is a rower at Harvard?
Do those sports have billion-dollar television contracts? Are assistant coaches making over a million dollars per year? The American market rewards workers who have a sought-after skill-set in virtually every other industry than basketball and football, where trade is restrained by the leagues and NCAA.
Is it just football and basketball players who can unionize? Or all scholarship athletes? Can a freshman demand as much pay as a senior? Is there seniority? Can women demand equal pay — and if not, why not?
Most scholarship athletes would probably be severely disappointed with the results of unionization. Non-revenue sports don’t exactly have a lot of leverage at the bargaining table.
Yes, freshmen can make more than seniors. The oldest athletes in professional leagues don’t get paid more merely on the basis on seniority and what they’ve done in the past unless their name is Kobe Bryant.
Equal gender pay is a tricky issue, and there are certainly some women’s basketball players at programs like UConn who deserve a share of the revenue they produce. However, is there anybody out there clamoring that WNBA players should make equal money to their NBA counterparts?
Jenkins buries the lede:
The NLRB ruling does nothing to solve the question of what to do about the fact that in some instances universities make huge profits off their athletes — though not many, as most operate in the red. There are other, more effective ways to address this. Like making scholarships good for life and giving athletes the money they deserve from their own autographs and likenesses.
Money is fungible, and the reason that so many of these athletic departments purportedly operate in the red is that their operators spend it somewhat frivolously on themselves. Patrick Hruby discussed this in great detail.
We’ve talked about why it might be better for players not to unionize, but to strive for an Olympics-style model of compensation based on external endorsements. Many of the issues that Jenkins is arguing — uneven gender pay, less seniority, the high value of education — could certainly apply to that model as well.