As the saying goes, there are experts and then there are experts. Both have filled books with their viewpoints on this modern issue. No, college sports are not modern. Labor disputes are not modern, either.

Paul Wong
David Den Herder

The issue, plainly, is labor in college sports. Specifically, do college athletes act as a labor force for the NCAA, and are they being exploited?

It is contentious, contentious, and only becoming more so. Twenty column inches in a newspaper will do nothing to alter that. But there are dollars, so many more dollars every year, being channeled through college athletics. And as this issue continues to divide, viewpoints on either side will become more clouded with the superfluous noise of debate.

We might attempt, before it”s too late, to somehow capture, frame, the issue to step back and ponder.

First off, what is the NCAA? A corporation? Not technically. It is an association the National Collegiate Athletic Association. It was originally formed in 1906 (according to its autobiography) as a response to “the flying wedge,” a football formation that was maiming and killing college football players. Today, the organization “strives to maintain intercollegiate athletics as an integral part of the educational program” its words. In essence, the NCAA sets the rules across the board and organizes championships for a number of sports. It is a very large committee. Several questions follow.

It seems true that the NCAA is not a corporation. It has no shareholders and no dividends to be paid off the bottom line. Presumably, whatever revenue is accrued by the Association goes toward supporting its infrastructure employee salaries, the overhead cost associated with tournaments, etc. If that”s the case, can the athletes really be considered a “work force?” For whom, or to what end, are they working? Is the NCAA not more like a forum, a tool by which these athletes can display their talents nationally?

Sound, but probably not that simple because the NCAA does not function as a wholly independent not-for-profit agency.

Even if it”s true that the NCAA seeks to turn no profit, the same cannot be said for outside parties that contribute money.

Presumably in an effort to increase cash flow, to provide a larger stage for its athletes, the NCAA has adopted “corporate partners.” American Express, General Motors, Holiday Inn, Penzoil, Pepsi, Verizon, Taco Bell each homepage is just a click away via the NCAA”s website.

These are companies with real shareholders and real bottom lines. Does it make sense for a company that”s sole purpose is selling tacos to give money to the NCAA? “The corporate partners,” states the NCAA, “provide the commitment of dollars, personnel and expertise…”

In return, they get their logo on the NCAA website, get mentioned on NCAA airtime, etc. It may be true that the philanthropic twinge of the CEO or morale of shareholders can play a factor in the decision to become a corporate partner. “Giving back” to the community, society, whatever, seems intrinsically good. But isn”t it equally good PR? Would these companies still fork over capital if they were not getting exposure in return? Can you quantify the value of such benefits?

We should presume that corporate partners would not be involved if they weren”t turning a profit. And for that specific profit, they are relying on the NCAA which relies on its athletes.

Does that turn the athletes into a labor force for the corporate partners? They are certainly not getting paid, either way. Some are receiving scholarships, but that is on a university”s tab.

And then there is the topic of licensing. The NCAA contracts a giant list of companies, from Action Images to Zweigle Advertising, Inc., to manufacture its products and labels. How many more basketballs does Rawlings sell because it has the right to say “Official ball of the NCAA?”

The NCAA, with athletes as its work force, is providing endorsements. Is it exploitation if the athletes are cut out of that money loop?

Then consider this: The revenue the NCAA accrues from advertising and licensing through major sports can be put toward financing tournaments and development for minor sports. For the first time this year, the NCAA is sponsoring a women”s water polo championship.

Could that have been possible without corporate partners like General Motors? It seems like the labor of basketball players is providing opportunity for water polo players. But it also seems, indirectly, like the labor of basketball players is providing revenue for General Motors.

Consider, as a friend once framed this issue for me, an art museum. The museum provides a stage for artists to display their talents. Maybe the popular artists keep the place open, so the not-as-popular artists still have a stage.

What if corporations decide to support this museum, make it better, in exchange for advertisements? A better museum is better for the artists, no? At the same time, has the museum contracted these artists” abilities out to corporations that might profit from advertising beside them?

Sure, the artists are better off than if there was no advertising at all. But is their labor being exploited at the same time?

Some say yes. Some say no. People are already choosing their sides, based on numbers, based on details made to fit their argument. There are experts and then there are experts. And then there are college athletes, who simply do what they do exploited or not, assisted or not, debated or not.

David Den Herder can be reached at dden@umich.edu

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