Full of holes

By Mickey Hirten

MSU President Simon’s argument against student-athlete unions denies reality

There are no better forums for anti-union arguments than The Wall Street Journal’s right-wing editorial pages. It’s where Michigan State University President Lou Anna Simon and Wake Forest University President Nathan Hatch last week warned of the threat to the billion-dollar collegiate athletic enterprise “by a push from people who believe that unionization for a few is the best and only way to address the current dynamic of college athletics.”

Both presidents work closely with the National Collegiate Athletic Association, Simon as chairwoman of the NCAA executive committee, Hatch as chairman of the NCAA Division I board. The threat to the NCAA, athletic conferences like the Big Ten and universities is the union bid by football players from Northwestern University. The action, approved by the National Labor Relations Board, but under appeal, challenges the concept of student-athletes and the sports empires that they support.

“We oppose the effort to bring labor unions into college sports. One group of athletes is not more hardworking, more dedicated or more driven than another. Unionization will create unequal treatment not only among student-athletes competing in different sports, but, quite possibly, even among student-athletes on the same team,” Simon wrote in the column appearing on the Journal’s digital site. She declined a request for an interview.

This is an odd argument. One would think Simon and Hatch would have a better sense of how athletetic programs at their schools operate.

Consider the first assertion: “One group of athletes is not more hardworking, more dedicated or more driven than another.”

By any reasonable standard, football players with their running, lifting and year-round conditioning drills work harder than members of the women’s varsity bowling team. Nothing against bowling. It’s an NCAA sanctioned sport. The championship was broadcast this weekend on ESPN and among the contenders was MSU’s Big Ten sister school, University of Nebraska. But it’s common sense that some sports are more difficult and demanding than others.

Simon and Hatch continue: “Unionization will create unequal treatment not only among student-athletes competing in different sports, but, quite possibly, even among student-athletes on the same team.”

The inequality Simon warns of is pervasive at MSU. The baseball team has players with full scholarships, some with partial scholarships and others with no scholarships at all. Even the football team has players on the roster without scholarships. And there is disparity for the same sports. According to a Lansing State Journal analysis of MSU’s sports programs, the men’s tennis team offers 4 1/2 scholarships; the women’s tennis team has eight. For soccer it’s 9.9 scholarships for the men, 14 for the women. Is this fair? No. But it’s the way the big Division 1 collegiate athletics enterprises construct programs to nurture student-athletes and comply with Title 9 requirements.

The column continues: “Our concerns about this movement extend beyond the economic and practical difficulties created by transforming the college-sports relationship into one of employeremployee. To call student-athletes employees is an affront to those players who are taking full advantage of the opportunity to get an education.”

Certainly there are economic and practical difficulties redefining the relationship between athletes and their schools, but MSU already employs hundreds, maybe thousands, of students. They work in dining halls, offices and even in the athletic department. How many athletes would be affronted by the school providing some measure of compensation, especially since most get no aid at all?

The Wall Street Journal column continues with a defense of the NCAA, a non-profit organization in name only. It had revenues of $841 million versus $791 million in expenses for the year ended Aug. 31, 2012. Technically it doesn’t earn a profit, but, of course, it did — $50 million. Regulating college sports is a giant business overseen by a chief executive, Mark Emmert, whose annual compensation tops $1.7 million.

Simon and Hatch offered this defense of the NCAA’s finances: “More than 90% of NCAA revenue is redistributed to member schools, which provide $2.7 billion in athletics scholarships in addition to other direct support to studentathletes. Most member schools depend on this revenue, as only 23 out of 1,100 generated more money than they spent on athletics in the past fiscal year.”

Another odd way to defend the current system. MSU is among the 23 schools that don´t need to directly subsidize athletics. But at most colleges and universities, educational programs compete with athletics for support. They struggle to stay competitive with the luxury facilities and soaring coaching and administrative salaries available to financially stable schools like MSU. There is something very out of kilter with the system.

Defenders of collegiate athletics as now constituted recognize that there are problems, but they want to address them methodically and protect the interests of the NCAA, conferences, schools, television networks and professional leagues. All benefit from the restrictive rules applied to students; a union would change all of that.

Nonetheless, Simon sees progress and wrote: “Division I is completely reworking its governance structure, with the student-athlete voice central to its design. After our structure is reconfigured in the coming months, we will pursue a number of other studentathlete benefits within a year. The Atlantic Coast Conference, Big Ten Conference, Big 12 Conference, Pacific-12 Conference and Southeastern Conference are committed to using the autonomy they hope to gain to better meet the needs of student-athletes at their 65 schools. Among the top issues to be addressed:

• Redefining a scholarship to include extra money for things such as trips home and professional clothing.

• Providing set times for student-athletes to get a break from the rigor of Division I sports.

• Keeping the health and safety of student-athletes a priority.

It’s better than nothing. But this last item, “Keeping the health and safety of student-athletes a priority” illustrates the paternalistic — for Simon, maternalistic — approach to the athlete workforce. Wouldn’t you expect that health and safety of athletes was always vital to the collegiate athletic establishment? It’s good to know that it´s now on the priority list.

“Eye Candy of the Week,”our look at some of the nicer properties in Lansing, will return next week. If you have a suggestion, please e-mail eye@lansingcitypulse.com or call Andy Balaskovitz at 999-5064.