“College Football Players are Employees”

“College football players are employees,” said the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) last week. That declaration brings the world of big-time college football (and basketball) another step closer to sanity.

Top college football programs are worth billions of dollars. Football and basketball players generate billions of dollars for the NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association) and their universities. Everybody involved gets paid—and the coaches outrageously so—but not the players.

The players are indentured servants. How so? First, they do not get paid commensurate with other workers who produce wealth; and second, these athletes are legally tethered to these schools. Their movements and activities are severely restricted—much more so than the coaches. See the article by Jason Belzer and Andy Schwarz, “National Letter of Indenture: Why College Athletes are Similar to Indentured Servants of Colonial Times.”

Thousands of teenagers accept scholarships to these schools in hopes of attaining fame and fortune. And the price they pay is to be subservient to these schools and the NCAA. Their scholarships amount to no more than minimum wage, and the NCAA subjects these players to many rules to maintain the façade of amateurism.

For example, the coach earns several million dollars per year, and the player cannot catch a ride to his hometown. One big-time school suspended a hungry player from the team for accepting a bag of food.

Yes, a few players acquire fame and fortune—or at least they enter the NFL or the NBA. However, only about five percent of players in the top conferences make it into the regular professional ranks. Most of the rest, the exploited, do not go pro or graduate.

It has taken a long time, but that charade is crumbling.

California led the way, but several other states have joined the bandwagon in passing legislation making it unlawful to deny these so-called “student-athletes” their right to earn money for the use of their pictures and other likenesses. The only good thing here is the outcome. The states are simply and shamelessly acting to keep top athletes coming to their state colleges and universities rather than going to universities in states that permit this income.

Last June, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 9-0 that the NCAA could not limit education-related benefits schools may offer student-athletes even if these benefits exceed the regular scholarship funding.

In that case, Justice Kavanaugh’s concurring opinion suggests these athletes may gain further ground in the future. In a blistering opinion, Justice Kavanaugh raised questions about the other compensation rules of the NCAA, saying they raise serious questions under antitrust laws. He asserted that the NCAA’s business model would be flatly illegal in almost any other industry in America.

And last week, the National Labor Relations Board declared that athletes who earn millions for their schools are employees. Therefore, they should be allowed to unionize and negotiate over their working conditions.

The NLRB General Counsel threatened action against schools, conferences, and the NCAA if they continue to use the term “student-athlete,” saying the NCAA created the term to disguise the employment relationship with college athletes and discourage them from pursuing their rights.

Specifically, the NCAA was moving to avoid paying worker’s compensation benefits to injured players.

The house of cards that is big-time college football and basketball is beginning to crumble.