UNC Academic Scandal and the NLRB Ruling in Student Athlete Right-to-Unionize Case

UNC Academic Scandal and the NLRB Ruling in Student Athlete Right-to-Unionize Case

UNC Academic Scandal and the NLRB Ruling in Student Athlete Right-to-Unionize Case
go cats
UK Cats

Here we are in the midst of March Madness. Probably half the nation is watching  men and women college athletes as they strive to be the last team standing, the one team that gets to cut down the net and bask in the glory of wearing the name “Champion” for a year. We all love a winner. (Warning: Shameless plug: Go Wildcats!)

It used to be that I could count on relaxing and watching college sports on TV in order to escape the rat race to a relatively politics-free zone. When my brain was fried from the nauseating liberal invasion of every other facet of my life, I could turn on a basketball, football, or baseball game to unwind and not think about anything but the friendly competition going on. (I know, that’s Pollyannish, but you get the picture.)

Suddenly this week I was reminded that even sports are not immune from the political fray. Two seemingly unrelated sports stories in particular have fried my brain and left my intellectual center on a roller-coaster ride from which I have yet to be able to exit.

I’ll start with the second story first, as it helped put the first story in context. Yesterday I was dismayed to read a devastating allegation that the same standards of evaluating academic achievement for average college students are not applied uniformly to college athletes. In fact, these particular allegations are not exactly recent, but actually came to light months ago. It’s just that the story continues to grow as the University responds to the allegations and denies the assertion that wrongdoing is widespread.

It’s not that I did not know that this type of special treatment is happening at universities across the country, and that it has been for years. I mean, when you see an athlete’s major declared as “underwater basket-weaving” or “communication relations,” it doesn’t take long to figure out that some athletes would not be in college but for their athletic acumen.

UNC term paper snippet
Screenshot from www.ijreview.com.

But to have the dark underbelly displayed so dramatically this week was a bit disturbing. And to see it online at ESPN’s website was even more of a blow to my gut. There are dozens of websites reporting on the allegations, including such things as the ridiculous single paragraph report on Rosa Parks that sufficed for a term paper in one class at the University of North Carolina (UNC). What is repugnant is that the student received an A- on this term paper, meaning it was a major part of his grade in a college-level course. At best it is a second-grade-level writing sample.

This is a link to the ESPN interview with a former player and with an instructor from UNC whose job was to help student athletes make it through their classes. The video caption reads:

North Carolina whistleblower Mary Willingham and former football player Deunta Williams discuss the fake classes that student-athletes were allegedly encouraged to take in order to maintain eligibility to play.

UNC SI cover
2011 SI cover depicts previous scandal

Now, UNC is no stranger to scandal. A few years ago its football program was under investigation for infractions of NCAA rules, as the pictured Sports Illustrated cover from 2011 shows. But in the present case, Instructor Mary Willingham delivers a scathing indictment of the coaches, the athletic department, and the university’s entire administration. Deunta Williams, a former football standout, provides first-hand, eye witness testimony to the allegations that fraud is rampant in the academic program that many athletes follow in order to remain player-eligible.

This story of fraud in the college sports ranks is disturbing enough in its own stead. However, it came to my attention in the wake of another event this past week. That is the second story that I mentioned at the outset, even though it actually was the first that came to my attention. I pondered the story and tried for hours on end to make sense of the story until finally, last night, the UNC story gave the earlier event a context that I had not thought of before.

The earlier event had me spitting nails and preparing to write a blog post that would have been a scathing indictment of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). This is the overzealous federal agency within the Department of Labor that Obama attempted to stack with unconfirmed liberal appointees several years ago during a (self-declared) recess of Congress that, in reality, was not an official recess at all. (That’s another story for some later date.)

This past Wednesday the Chicago Region NLRB president ruled that student athletes are employees of their university, and they therefore can unionize. The president distinguished scholarship players from walk-ons, and said only the former can vote in union elections. Despite the exclusion of walk-ons, the decision has paralyzed many in the college administrative ranks, as well as in the NCAA.

With my head still spinning, over the last 24 hours, I have begun to formulate a big picture that encompasses these two seemingly unrelated stories, and has prepared me to pose a solution.

CAPA spokesman Kain Colter

Let’s look briefly at this recent NLRB case. The parties are the College Athletes Players Association (CAPA) as the complainant and the respondent is Northwestern University in Illinois, a private university. Without going into the details of the case (which has a 24-page decision from the NLRB), here are the basics. The college players are seeking a right to form a union so that they can make demands on the University. They assert that as athletes they are employees of the university. The university, with the backing of the NCAA and dozens of other universities, argue that the relationship between athletes and colleges is not and never has been one of employer-employee. In other word, student athletes are students, not employees.

Knowing that lawsuits cost money, one might wonder where student athletes would come up with the dough to hire attorneys to argueusw this case for them. It’s no wonder that the financial backing for this endeavor to have college athletes be declared employees and afford them the right to unionize is coming from — where else– the United Steelworkers Union. Big Union is itching to get its paws on the union dues that student athletes will have to fork over if they do unionize.

nlrb ohr
Chicago NLRB Regional Director Peter Ohr

The decision of the NLRB Chicago regional director is a 24-page document and is posted online. Having read through the opinion, I can tell you that nearly half of it is a recitation of all the ways that the university controls the lives of athletes, particularly the football team which is the subject of the case (as a former Northwestern quarterback is leading the charge). The regional NLRB board president basically throws out reason and says that the university is unquestionably an employer since it has faculty and staff and others who work for it. The only question to resolve is whether the student athletes, in turn, are employees. When the director turned to the common law criteria that apply to employer-employee relationships, he found that the athletes fit the mold because there is a quid pro quo situation — they are employed when they play on the team since they receive compensation in the form of tuition, room, board, supplies, books, and stipends. The case is being appealed to the Washington, D.C., office of the NLRB.

I could go into a litany of ridiculous requirements that will have to be followed if the ruling stands. For example, withholding for FICA and taxes on the compensation, labor laws limiting the number of hours an employee can work, non-discrimination when hiring (maybe a good thing for white athletes who are far outnumbered by non-whites in nearly every sport), minimum wage requirements, unemployment compensation, American with Disability Act requirements, and on and on. The list is nearly limitless, just as it is for true employers. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that, unless this ruling is reversed, it will be the end of college sports as we know it.

So, to move ahead to the punch line, I have the perfect, brilliant solution for colleges and universities: make [name your sport] studies a curriculum of its own. A degree in [name your sport] could be added to a university’s course list, with players getting credit for their efforts on the field. Practices would be called study sessions, and their games would be practicums or internships. Eventually the universities themselves could offer a source of employment for some of the better players who graduate but are not good enough to move on to the NFL, NBA, American or National League, etc. What a concept!

This solution would also solve the fraudulent curriculum problem that is the subject of the UNC scandal story above. Sports degrees would actually be a truer reflection of what goes on in college sports. Students would get grades for what they are actually there to do — play a sport. This solution would fit the athlete-university relationship squarely into the Brown University case from 2004 where graduate student assistants were deemed to not be employees because they were working within the same related field of studies in which they were pursuing a degree. This solution would also make moot the court’s assertion that “The Employer’s Grant-in-Aid Scholarship Football Players are (sic) not ‘Primarily Students’.” Under my plan this point in the director’s decision would be obliterated because the field of study would be [name your sport] and the student’s athletic endeavors would be leading directly to that degree.

If colleges and universities can offer classes and degrees in fields such as these, why can they not have classes, if not degrees, in [Name Your Sport]:

  • Degree of Puppetry Arts (Univ. of Connecticut)
  • Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Clown College (Florida)
  • Raising Chickens for Meat and Eggs (Fleming College, Canada)
  • Degree in EcoGastronomy (Univ. of New Hampshire)
  • Paranormal Studies (Online, but still…)
  • Reporting from the Twilight Zone (College of Southern Nevada — Harry Reid’s favorite vacation spot)
  • Bowling Industry Management Degree (Vincennes University, IN)
  • Exorcism 101 (UPRA)
  • Media Genres: Zombies (Univ. of Baltimore)
  • History of Homicide (Anne Arundel College – MD)

Are you reading this Northwestern? NCAA? Call or email me here at Victory Girls Blog if you want to discuss my solution to your problem.

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  • Jen says:

    The dingbat analysts at ESPN have put forth the idea that schools could simply pay people to play for them. No need for them to go to classes or pursue a degree, they simply could be paid employees of the schools to represent them on the field.

    Apparently, ESPN is so into the business side of sports that they have forgotten the notion of a college being represented in team competitions by their students. Competitions that include football and run the gamut of chess, debate, That colleges provide sports teams for students to play on as a way to adjunct pride in the school, that also due to scholarships provides a way for many athletes to complete a degree and go on to work in the field. The VAST majority of student athletes do not go on to play professional sports. The primary function of a university is to prepare people to go our and have a career. It is not to field a football team to garner revenue on Saturdays.

    • Jen says:

      To add to my above post, the NCAA reported in 2012 that 1.7% of football players go on to play professional sports. 255 out of 67,877 players entered the draft and were signed.

      The graduation rate for all Division 1 student athletes is 80%. They also graduate at a slightly higher rate than their non student athlete peers.

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