Labor Unions Will Save Collegiate Athletics Like They Saved Detroit

Labor Unions Will Save Collegiate Athletics Like They Saved Detroit

Labor unions seek to organize Northwestern, Duke, and Stanford athletes the way they once organized Flint, Gary, and Paterson workers. Who could possibly object?  

“Face it: The jig is up,” William C. Rhoden declares in the New York Times. He writes of the unionization efforts of the United Steelworkers to shift the classification of Northwestern University football players from student-athletes to employees. Rhoden maintains that the National Labor Relation Board’s ruling affirming this designation merely “confirmed Wednesday what many of us already know: Athletes running and jumping across our television screens are university employees.”

But what about the athletes whose running and jumping occurs off our television screens? Division 1 college basketball houses 351 teams. Just four play on the grand stage in Arlington, Texas this weekend. Rhoden has never heard of many Division 1 men’s basketball teams, let alone watched their players on television. Add the 351 women’s Division 1 basketball teams, junior varsity squads still in existence, and the hundreds of basketball programs competing at the sub-D1 level and one quickly gleans why the ramifications of the Northwestern University case would be disastrous for all but a few competitors. This doesn’t even begin to ponder the dozens of athletic programs less popular, and more costly, than five guys throwing a leather ball in a metal hoop.   

If universities classified student-athletes as employees, then the vast majority of them would be collecting unemployment. When you drain resources from an institution, as all but the Johnny Manziels and Shabazz Napiers do, the institution ceases the financial arrangement. An exception lies in charitable organizations, which describes the structure of most colleges and universities and explains why they irrationally, from an Homo Economicus outlook at least, offer free education, housing, gyms, food, and other benefits to athletes who perform in front of empty bleachers. Will they want to bear the added expenses of workman’s compensation, wages, health benefits, and other job perks for those who play rather than work? Employees who subtract rather than add to the bottom line get laid off and outsourced. Sections whose expenditures exceed their revenues–think indoor track, golf, field hockey–face downsizing and elimination.

Unintended consequences inevitably ensue from do-gooder schemes. Title IX’s proponents didn’t aim to eliminate wrestling programs. And fledgling labor leader Kain Colter, who meets with lawmakers on Capitol Hill today, perhaps doesn’t want Title IX to force boys’ football players who generate income to share revenue equally with the girls’ rowers who run on a deficit. But it’s never about what do-gooders do. It’s about the good they want to do.

Like Rhoden’s piece, others from sports sites read more like Lane Kirkland than Grantland Rice. “The real triumph of the decades-long propaganda war against organized labor isn’t best seen in the ever-declining rate of unionization, or ever-increasing income inequality, or even the way the word ‘union’ functionally works as an epithet,” Deadspin‘s Bill Haisley stridently writes. “It’s seen, instead, in the fact that so many otherwise smart, thoughtful people don’t seem to know what unions actually do.” And what they will do, Haisely instructs, is save collegiate athletics. Just like they saved Detroit?

Michigan State basketball coach Tom Izzo, who has resided in the state of Michigan every year since birth, surely grasps, if only by osmosis, the frequency with which organized labor’s results clashes with its intentions. When Izzo questioned whether student-athletes possessed the “rights” to form unions, SBNation‘s Tom Ziller bizarrely labeled Izzo’s verbiage “straight out of the Jim Crow South.” Yes. Exactly. Kleagle Izzo reminds everyone of Bull Connor.

The temptation of dismissing Ziller as a too-zealous Big Blue fan shouldn’t be indulged. There’s something nevertheless instructive in thinking in such terms. Politics is a lot like sports. Fans, called “partisans” in politics, mindlessly root for teams. An Astros fan can insist his team will win the World Series while passing a lie-detector test. In sports and politics, the emotions override the senses, which seems to be what’s happened in Ziller’s over-the-top insult of Izzo. He’s thinking from his chest rather than his head.

Izzo leads a majority-minority team. African Americans comprise two of his three assistants. And he coaches basketball, not ice hockey. Does the native Michigander really seem like a guy deserving of labeling anything that comes out of his mouth “straight out of the Jim Crow South”?

The hyperbole, in which Ziller’s ideological passions clearly overcame his intelligence, mars much of the debate, in which combatants stubbornly dig in deeper in their familiar trenches. Sports, here, unfortunately becomes a proxy battle for scribes more interested in politics than athletics. With ideological tics rather than facts and reason informing the crusade to unionize people who don’t even earn a wage, prospects for persuasion, or even library-level-decibel discussion, seem bleak. So, jock sites bore with slogans and bromides that advertise the politics of the writer more than invigorate the thoughts of the reader. Sport, like politics, makes us stupider.

The robotic prose of the ideologue characterizes much of the rest of Ziller’s Big Bill Haywood imitation. “Unions don’t just bargain pay raises,” Ziller writes. “They also advocate for better working conditions, a more fair grievance or arbitration system and the like. It’d sure be nice if athletes outside the big two sports, too, were able to collectively advocate for an improved system.” Did the AFL-CIO write this for him?

Perhaps Tom Izzo, living his entire life in the state of Michigan, knows something about unions that Tom Ziller does not. A few years back, the Lansing Car Assembly, the oldest continuously-operated automobile factory in the United States, closed its doors after producing 20 million cars over more than a century. More than 3,000 union members lost their jobs.

This is what happens when the cost of labor and production exceeds revenue. The athletes “running and jumping across our television screens” on a regular basis may be helped by the National Labor Relations Board’s decision to allow amateur athletes to organize in a manner akin to factory workers. But the ones who run and jump without the fanfare of a packed stadium or TV cameras tracking their every move will be harmed grievously.

Unions pride themselves on standing up for the Little Guy. The decision of the United Steelworkers to organize undergraduates into a labor union stands atop that Little Guy.

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