Final scores weren’t the only way of measuring success as the Final Four tipped off Saturday.
The other game being played is determining who is — and isn’t — benefiting from the hoops extravaganza.
The NCAA certainly is. College sports’ organizing body collects about $700 million from the media companies who own the broadcast rights. Another $20 million arrives from tournament ticket revenue.
Much of that revenue trickles down to the conferences and member schools according to a formula that rewards bracket advancement. Same for coaches and administrators, who collect bonuses on team and individual achievement.
The athletes? Nothing directly.
The empty-pockets image is the charged current running through the Final Four and all of college sports, and the desire to change the equation is more powerful than ever.
“Coaches who make millions and talk about what kids deserve and don’t deserve are hypocrites,” said Oscar Robertson, one of the game’s greatest players.
Forces out to reshape college sports are approaching from multiple directions, and as the NCAA and its members face challenges, recent decisions strongly indicate they haven’t moved quickly enough.
This week, as the Final Four teams were making their way to Texas, former Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter arrived in Washington, D.C., to meet Sen. Sherrod Brown, an Ohio Democrat, and discuss his and Northwestern players’ efforts to unionize.
Two weeks ago, the Chicago office of the National Labor Relations Board ruled that Northwestern football players are employees of the university and have the right to collectively bargain.
The decision stunned Northwestern and the NCAA, and the university announced it would appeal.
But labor analysts called it a landmark decision for the future of college athletics, and the union movement is expected to expand.
Zach Bohannon, a reserve forward on Wisconsin’s basketball team, said he’s participated in weekly conference calls in recent months with the union, head of the National College Players Association Ramogi Huma and other athletes.
“It was definitely a unique experience just hearing the concerns that players all over the country had, and then just voicing my opinion,” Bohannon said.
While Bohannon is tuned into the union movement, many participating in the Final Four are not.
“I’ve heard of what they’re trying to do,” said Florida guard Casey Prather said. “I have nothing to do with this at the moment. You know, I have a full scholarship. I’ve gotten to experience a lot of different things. I’m pretty much happy where things are.”
The Final Four coaches were unanimous in their desire to provide additional benefits to athletes.
“I would love to see the student athletes, when they graduate, have some kind of medical benefit to give them leeway until they’re able to get a secure job with health benefits,” Connecticut coach Kevin Ollie said.
Improved health coverage —and not payments from television contracts — has been Colter’s primary goal. He wants schools to pay for sports-related medical bills for up to two years after playing and to allow players to have an additional year of financial aid if they’ve completed their eligibility and are in good academic standing but haven’t graduated.
Seeking health benefits and not money, labor analysts say, gives Colter’s group the moral high ground. But a host of potential complications are struck when drilling down into the issue of unions and college athletes, said Jay Krupin, a labor attorney for BakerHostetler, in an email.
“What the NLRB ruling does not address is that if student-athletes are employees, then a host of other labor-related issues need to be addressed — such as: Why don’t the athletes receive W-2s and why aren’t the scholarships taxed?” Krupin said. “Players practicing for more than 40 hours a week would also be eligible for overtime, and injured players could get workers’ compensation.
“The university sports programs would also open themselves up to discrimination lawsuits based on equal employment opportunity laws.”
Title XI is the federal law mandating that universities provide equal opportunities to women. If Northwestern football players are employees, the Wildcats’ volleyball players would have to be as well, right?
Connecticut’s Geno Auriemma, who is seeking his ninth national championship at the women’s Final Four in Nashville, Tenn., that begins Sunday, may have only been half-joking when he offered a different take on the employer-employee relationship.
“I’m actually in favor of paying them,” Auriemma said. “But also in favor of firing them if they’re not any good. I think that’s fair.”
A cloud of questions complicates the issue. Could an employee-athlete file a grievance against a professor over a grade that affects his eligibility? Could an employee-athlete fight the school that booted him off the team for a criminal action? Go see the union rep.
Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby hopes that will never happen.
“If we go down the path of creating an employee-employer relationship with our students, we will have forever lost our way,” Bowlsby said.
The colleges, at least the ones with athletic programs that generate the most revenue, are poised to alter the course of player welfare. Kansas State president Kirk Schulz is part of a task force charged with creating a new business model for the NCAA, one that provides greater control for the 65 schools in the Big 12, Southeastern Conference, Big Ten, Pac-12 and Atlantic Coast Conference.
Those schools want the voting ability to provide more services to athletes, like payment in some form, and access to agents. Previous efforts were met with resistance. About 350 schools are classified as Division I. The majority has voted against the larger schools, and now the five power conferences essentially want their own governance structure.
“If this is not accepted by the NCAA, the 65 schools will find alternatives,” Schulz said. “It’s a critical deal.”
A new model could be approved by the end of the month and put in place for the next school year. But before then, college sports is facing multiple lawsuits. The Ed O’Bannon suit, which argues that college athletes should share in television broadcast, licensing and video-game revenues created by their names and likeness, is set to go to trial in June, though the two sides have been in mediation since March.
Labor lawyer Jeffrey Kessler, who has represented players unions in all four major sports, filed a lawsuit on behalf of current and former players last month seeking to remove all restrictions on player compensation. His big beef: Schools violate antitrust laws by agreeing to cap players’ compensation at the value of an athletic scholarship.
As college sports approaches showdowns on these and other fronts, the big party continues. Saturday’s attendance was expected to set a record for a college basketball game, and Bowlsby, whose conference is serving as the Final Four host, believes there isn’t a problem the colleges can’t fix themselves.
“There’s a lot that right with the enterprise,” he said. “The marriage of higher education and the student-athlete avocation is a good one that has served us well over a long period of time. But there are some things that are not right, things we need to make improvements on.”
Improvements, to Bowlsby and others in college sports, that don’t require a labor union or courtroom.