Reports, NLRB ruling show the exploitation of college athletes

March 29, 2014 

Marcus Paige and the UNC men’s basketball team are out of the NCAA Tournament, but that didn’t stop the university from leaning on Paige to score points last week.

The sophomore guard, a second team Academic All-America, and several other athletes were taken before the university’s board of trustees to affirm that they are getting an education at UNC-CH in addition to devoting long hours to their sports.

But the athletes’ testimony had an effect opposite to its intent. When Paige feels compelled to say of himself and his teammates, “Trust me, we all can read and write,” the heart sinks.

And the discouragement deepens with the realization that UNC can’t get beyond denial. The show for the trustees – called “A Day in the Life of a Student-Athlete” – came the same week that national audiences watching shows on ESPN and HBO heard from former UNC athletes with a different message. They said that not only were they steered to no-show classes, but their entire schedules and majors were set up for them to maximize the time they could devote to sports and still stay academically eligible.

UNC whistle-blower and former athletics learning specialist Mary Willingham told ESPN, “Athletes couldn’t write a paper. They couldn’t write a paragraph. They couldn’t write a sentence.”

Willingham has been granted a meeting with UNC-CH Chancellor Carol Folt to discuss what she knows about the academic qualifications of athletes. That meeting has been a shockingly long time in coming and comes after efforts by Provost James W. Dean Jr. to discredit Willingham’s claims.

What Willingham may encounter in meeting with UNC’s leaders is another kind of illiteracy – an inability to read the seriousness of the athletic-academic scandal and what it is costing the university in prestige, morale and credibility.

Even as UNC struggles to contain and counter the fraud beneath the surface of big-money college sports, the truth is working itself inevitably to the surface.

Perhaps the most obvious indictment comes from the spectacle unfolding in the background this month, the NCAA men’s basketball tournament. CBS and Turner Sports paid nearly $11 billion for 14 years of TV rights to the tournament. And they’re getting their money back with extended timeouts and halftimes crammed with commercials. According to a Kantar Media report on last year’s tournament, the average price of a 30-second spot in the championship game was $1.42 million, up 6 percent from the prior year. The tournament’s athletes get paid nothing.

The NCAA and university leaders, of course, counter that athletes get a character-shaping experience and a free college education by playing sports. That may be true for athletes in non-revenue sports, but it’s often not the case in football and men’s basketball.

Last week a regional director of the National Labor Relations Board punctured the fiction of college athletes as student-athletes by ruling that Northwestern University scholarship football players are employees and eligible to unionize. The NLRB’s Peter Ohr reached that conclusion after a hearing that made clear what really happens in “a day in the life of a student-athlete.” Those days add up to 50 to 60 hours a week during training camp and 40 to 50 hours a week during the three- or four-month football season.

“Not only is this more hours than many undisputed full-time employees work at their jobs, it is also many more hours than the players spend on their studies,” Ohr wrote in his ruling.

The NLRB ruling will be appealed and other legal challenges fought, but the process is heading inexorably toward unmasking the fraud and compensating college players either through cash or with a true education. University leaders at UNC and at all universities that are involved in major revenue sports shouldn’t resist the process but urge it along.

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