NEW YORK – The debate over paying college athletes has ramped up recently, with March Madness giving the press a perfect opportunity to harp on the unfairness of a billion-dollar business built on the backs of unpaid labor. With all the coverage, you might be sick of hearing about the myth of the “student-athlete” and the gaudy salaries and bonuses enjoyed by athletic directors and coaches, but the NCAA itself just demonstrated why it’s necessary to keep this issue in the headlines.
On Tuesday, the NCAA’s legislative council announced a number of small rule changes to advance “student-athlete well-being,” including the approval of unlimited meals for scholarship and walk-on athletes. Under the previous rules, players on scholarship were limited to three meals a day or a food stipend, with school cafeteria hours often conflicting with practice and game times.
The changes come a week after University of Connecticut star Shabazz Napier sparked outrage when he told reporters he doesn’t always have money for food. “There are hungry nights where I’m not able to eat, but I still gotta play up to my capabilities,” he said, before leading his team to a national championship.
By all reports, the NCAA had been mulling expanding athlete meals for a while now, so it woudn’t be fair to imply that the national outcry over Napier’s comments directly led to the change. But the NCAA’s stubborn track record suggests that media pressure might often be necessary to force the league to lift its incredibly heavy hand. Public shaming has proven an effective tactic of late: Back in August, ESPN’s Jay Bilas sent a barrage of tweets highlighting the NCAA’s hypocrisy in investigating Johnny Manziel for allegedly accepting money for his autograph while the association itself was selling Texas A&M football jerseys with Manziel’s number on the back. Two days later — a stunning pace for the notoriously foot-dragging league — NCAA President Mark Emmert announced that the league would cease selling school jerseys on its official website.
This speaks to the essence of the Northwestern football players’ push to unionize: It’s not about being paid — it’s about being heard. Right now, the press serves as the primary avenue to amplify the voices of the NCAA players whose management doesn’t allow them to speak for themselves. College athletes differ widely on the issue of pay-for-play, reflecting the diversity of both thought and circumstances surrounding them. When Napier discussed his food plight, he noted that he recognizes the benefit of a scholarship even if it “doesn’t cover everything.”
“I don’t think you should stretch it out to hundreds of thousands of dollars for playing, because a lot of times guys don’t know how to handle themselves with money. I feel like a student-athlete.”
While the issue of paying college athletes is incredibly complicated and involves several often conflicting interests, the status quo is not working and it shouldn’t be up to the NCAA to unilaterally develop solutions. As a National Labor Relations Board regional director ruled in the Northwestern case, college athletes are “employees” and, as such, deserve a voice in the discussion to change the arcane rules that govern them.
Until all players are afforded that right through collective bargaining, the sports pages, blogs and networks will be the best platforms to help keep the NCAA in check.
Kavitha A. Davidson is a Bloomberg View columnist who writes about sports. Twitter: @kavithadavidson. Email: email@example.com.