There has been a lot of ink spilled over the NLRB decision that seems to be opening a door for unionization of college athletics.
There are many general summaries of the decision out there. Here’s one.
It’s the analysis that is now coming in hot and heavy, and they are all over the place. Interesting to ask why.
Here’s Forbes on some overlooked aspects of the ruling.
Here’s Reason Magazine, correctly pointing out the relative ease by which public programs could be spared by legislation, and the political reasons for doing so. Especially the cross-subsidy from revenue to non-reveune sports, the latter of which would be under pressure the more the ante is upped financially on the revenue side.
And here’s John Kass in the Chicago Tribune, arguing that in the long run the only good solution is the one John Maynard Hutchins came to at the University of Chicago last century: get out of the big time stuff altogether. Chicago returned to football in time, but only to Division III.
And a Bloomberg piece arguing the whole issue would go away if universities only were to grant full four-year scholarships to athletes.
The list of analyses goes on. We are into speculative territory here, and for several reasons. One is the nature of the ruling itself: it’s only the decision of a regional director, Washington has yet to weigh in, etc. And it’s not as though this resolves an outstanding issue that was already ripe–it only opens to the door, possibly, on a series of events that have yet to develop and mature.
But another big reason for the speculative quality is the relatively high degree of disagreement over how all the pieces fit together in the first place. The precise nature of the financial relationship between higher education (the weakened parent) and college athletics (the overgrown and headstrong child) has long been shrouded in mystery. Even today, there is significant disagreement over how the pieces actually fit together. It’s hard to predict the future if you don’t understand the present all that well.
I’ll venture this, however.
Most all the analyses out there look at the issue through the lens of athletics. Which makes some sense. Athletics may be the child, but it does get most of the attention. Mention big time university X to someone in the general public, or a legislator, or someone in the press and what image is summoned up? Sports, mostly. We know intellectually universtities are supposed to be about something else but we can’t help it in our culture of entertainment and spectacle–universities in our collective gut are more about big time sports than anything else.
Which explains the odd nature of most of the press coverage. The issue is handled for the most part in the press as though it all needs to get played out as one of athletics. But meantime . . . ummm . . . what of the higher education parent?
It should not escape scrutiny that this series of events is happening at a time of relative crisis in higher education. True, that crisis will affect Franklin Pierce College before it does Ohio State, but there is a generalized crisis brewing nonetheless. So the idea that “we’ll make it through this fight–we always have before” is losing traction as a general matter in higher education, and that may well have implications for how the athletics issue is played out.
Now, I have great faith in the resilience of big time athletics. Athletics programs may not have the full support of internal constituencies in higher education, like the faculty, but they have lots and lots of external support. And the flow of money buys a lot of influence. Even if, like me, you believe that most big time programs lose money and require essentially secret subsidies from students and parents, the big money goes somewhere, and it has been very effective in building bases of power–bases of power that will hold on to what privilege they have and will look to export the shock of any new costs onto weaker actors.
So we have a kind of conundrum here. On the one hand, most universities are already on the hook to subsidize big programs but they resist coming clean about it. Since the institutions of higher education are already the political weak link, and quietly go about eating financial losses and forcing students to pony up for them, the most likely effect of new costs for athlete pay is for them to increase their level of subsidy. That is simply more likely, politically, than cutting coach salaries or reducing the lavish nature of athletic facilities. But there is a storm brewing on the cost side of higher education as well, one that has been a long time coming and that is not easily resisted. It could be a fun fight.