Doing right by college athletes

AnotherViewsquareA recent mainstream newspaper editorial urged the need for reform in college sports. But as usual, the ‘emperor’s new clothes’ issue remains overlooked or ignored: Paying college athletes.

Drexel Sports Management Professor Ellen Staurowsky
Drexel Sports Management Professor Ellen Staurowsky

Drexel University Sports Management Professor Ellen Staurowsky argued last month in her Huntington Post article that she supports a National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) regional director’s ruling last year that Northwestern University football players are indeed employees, which is under appeal.

Staurowsky, the author of a 2010 report that showed a shortfall between an athlete’s scholarship and the actual cost of expenses he or she must cover, is among the “signatories” on a brief filed in support of the ruling along with sports economists, other college academia types, legal scholars and pro sports organizations. Those against it include Northwestern and eight private collegiate institutions, six U.S. House Republicans, and the American Council on Education, who compared college athletes to “all other students” on campus.

This, said Staurowsky in a recent MSR phone interview, is “a superficial argument.”

“Everybody in the [college athletics] system knows that athletes are being paid for athletic performance,” she explained. “We’ve known since the 1950s to the present that athletic scholarships were payment for athletic performance.”

No one, however, ever talks about the fact that athletic scholarships are only for one year at a time, and the player is at the coach’s mercy if it gets renewed or not. No one talks about the fact that athletes, unlike regular students on scholarship, can’t work during the school year. No one talks about the almost 450-page NCAA rule book that each player must adhere to.

No one talks about the number of hours the players put in for their respective sport, which is comparable to a regular 40-hour work week — but with one exception: Players don’t get a dime for their “labor.” Instead of calling them student-athletes, the more appropriate term should be “athlete-student.” Or better yet, just “player.”

Changing the language is “very, very difficult,” continued Staurowsky, who believes most media are just as guilty in this regard as university presidents, athletic directors and fans. She strongly advises that journalists “get out of the framework of replicating the language that the NCAA uses over and over again. I think that plays right into the hands of the authorities that are so reluctant to change.”

The NCAA meanwhile continues its fight against change as the “Power Five” conferences — the Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12, ACC and SEC — last month welcomed “the new era of autonomy.”  Now the combined 65 schools, including Minnesota, can make their own rules with only 60 percent or a simple majority vote from their members. Last week the Pac-12 proposed a rollback of the freshman eligibility rule, in place since 1972.

“I think the autonomy movement has clearly demonstrated to me why this system is as dysfunctional as it is,” noted Staurowsky.

When asked if her beliefs and her research are solely based on her hating college sport, the former athletics director now professor said, “It wouldn’t surprise me that people say that, [but] personally I don’t think I would devote the amount of time to try to hold the system accountable if I didn’t think there was value in it somewhere.

“Do I think you need a 21st Century model of college athletics?” A model that includes playing players? “Yes, I really do,” she concluded.

First of two-part story. Next: Educating athletes’ parents

Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to