COLLEGE ATHLETIC UNIONS, THE NCAA, AND ALICE IN WONDERLAND
I have always loved Lewis Carroll, whose real name was Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, a mathematician, logician famous for his fantasy tales of a young girl trudging through a world of absolute nonsense. Yup, Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, are two of Carroll’s noted literary works. And it feels to me like collegiate athletics today is experiencing what Alice did.
I mention this because some of the lessons in logic/illogic, which Carroll bombards us with in Alice, keep cropping up when I continue to review the National Labor Relations Board’s decision to allow Northwestern University football players to be defined as “employees” of Northwestern.
Ever since the NLRB ruling last Wednesday by Peter Sung Ohr its reverberations have sent shock waves through the hallowed corridors of collegiate athletics. As Alice would say of her day, that’s when things got, “Curiouser and curiouser.”
It seems as if everyone, including yours truly, chimed in on the chorus of questioners, inquisitors, detractors, and those genuinely concerned over the consequences of this ruling for the future of college football, indeed, of the entirety of athletics on college campuses.
Mike Jensen of The Philadelphia Inquirer suggested that since the NCAA already has legislation on the books limiting “athletically-related activities” to twenty hours per week, “How about enforcing it?”
And Kevin Trahan in USA TODAY Sports prompted discussions about taxes, Title IX, pay-for-play, and the role of the United Steel Workers Union, which bankrolled the legal fees for Kain Colter’s College Athletic Players Association (CAPA).
Yesterday, Stanford University issued a listing of caveats for its employees on the subject, “To avoid liability”, including, not to “Threaten actions against student-athletes if they join or vote for a union,” “retaliate against student-athletes for actually supporting a union,” “promise benefits to student-athletes to discourage union support,” “monitor athlete’s union student-activities,” “question student-athletes about their union sympathies or activities,” or “state that Stanford will not deal with a union.” On the heels of this directive, David Shaw, Head Football Coach at Stanford, commented on the issue after Monday’s spring practice session in which he questioned the motives of the action brought by CAPA. “I’m as confused as anybody as to the importance of this,” Shaw reflected. “I’m curious what’s really driving it.”
Coach Shaw is not the only one expressing curiosity. I am curious why CAPA picked a private institution, knowing that jurisdiction in this issue was federal, and in a pro-union state? Why did it seem to CAPA that Northwestern was ripe for such a challenge, and not, say, the University of Illinois, where labor determinations are governed by State legislation?
There are so many questions, it would seem, that the entire litany has not been articulated yet. While the NCAA has yet to weigh in on this issue with any conjecture or opinions, it is my bet that there have been a myriad of phone calls, discussions, emails (maybe not, they’re “discoverable” in any legal action), and digging through previous court and NLRB decisions to counter the arguments Ohr gave in the ruling.
I seriously doubt that Northwestern will have to slog it out on its own, though. The NCAA has a vested interest in this case and with its cadre of lawyers undoubtedly has offered “assistance” to Northwestern’s legal team.
There is no corner of the collegiate sporting world, I am convinced, that has not been inundated with opinions, conjectures, and reasons both for and against this ruling. My bet, however, is that it is heavily weighed in the “against” column.
And the logic on both sides has yet to crystallize into any concrete arguments. Oh, there are the hard-liners on both sides who are convinced that their views are “right” and “true” and “valid”. But at the real heart of the matter is the future of collegiate athletics and its student-athletes. It seems to be in such flux at this point that I am reminded what Alice said when asked who she was: “I know who I WAS when I got up this morning, but I think I must have been changed several times since then,” she sheepishly replied.
Will Northwestern’s appeal be upheld? Will Ohr’s ruling stand? How will this affect state supported colleges and universities? What will the NCAA do, if anything? Will it end up travelling through the courts and ultimately end up being heard by the Supreme Court? Just an aside here for those of us who remember, what if Byron “Whizzer” White were still alive and on the High Court? (Forgive me, just a muse there.)
In the meantime, what are our college athletes thinking in their heart of hearts?
In more institutions than we can mention here, the concerns CAPA has had and on which it pressed its case actually ARE being practiced. There are emergency funds for student-athletes with special circumstances. There are support programs to improve study skills. There are programs to develop “Life Skills”. AND there is in place a Student Athlete Advisory Committee (SAAC) at each NCAA institution which has a voice with the athletic administration.
Still, that does not seem to be enough, and I think of what Tweedledee told Alice, “Contrariwise, if it was so, it might be; and if it were so, it would be; but as it isn’t, it ain’t. That’s logic.” Such seems to be the “logic” of where we are today.
Until the Northwestern appeal is heard and some sense of all this can be made, we will drift through a surrealistic, theatrical haze which even the CGI fantasy experts in Hollywood could not conjure.
So I am wandering through the Mad-Hatter’s view here: “If I had a world of my own, everything would be nonsense. Nothing would be what it is, because everything would be what it isn’t. And contrary wise, what is, it wouldn’t be. And what it wouldn’t be, it would. You see?”
I sincerely hope that is not what Kain Colter and CAPA now see as reality.
Dr. Ogden is Chair of Sports Management at the United States Sports Academy. He has worked in higher education for more than four decades. He has served as a college dean, vice-president, president, football coach, and athletic director. He is a published author and poet and writes a weekly column on issues facing America. He has also served on NCAA committees and on the All-American Football Selection Committee.