Don't Believe the Hype: It's (Partly) About Paying Players

Dolla bill, y'all - Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

The proposed union has many goals, but let's not be coy, one of them is paying players.

It started as a hashtag, but #APU has moved past something football players write on their uniforms. Northwestern's football team has officially started the process of certifying a union of college football players.

You can read their list of objectives here, and if you'll note "get paid" isn't on the list. At least, not specifically. However, the baseball union wasn't formed to get rid of the reserve clause. Well, not officially anyway. It first negotiated pension disputes before slowly working its way to completely transforming the economics of the sport.

The union isn't dumb enough to put the ultimate end game on their website. Right now, the objectives are fairly modest, and largely popular. They want the NCAA to get used to negotiating with them first as a legitimate body before going for the massive, sweeping reforms.

The NCAA claims that it represents athlete's interests. We've all seen the ads in which the NCAA imagines itself as a spirit squad, cheering athletes in the classroom. That's a great idea and all, but how can the NCAA claim to represent athletes' interests and then deny them any voice? I mean, don't you at least need to know what athletes actually want? This goes beyond a union, but the structure of the NCAA itself. Shouldn't the governance of the NCAA at least pretend to care about the concerns of the student-athlete?

The biggest issues being raised concern health care. The NCAA should be pretty darn interested here, as the NFL is currently dealing with a massive lawsuit related to concussions from playing football. The NCAA has an even greater pool of potential plaintiffs, so they might want to consider getting ahead of the concussion issue before a court makes them.

Even beyond concussions, football is a dangerous sport. It's not asking the world for football programs to cover related medical expenses from injuries incurred playing football for the school. I think it is a good idea for players to lead off with health care issues, something they have an obvious stake in.* Objectives 1, 3, 6, and 7 (nearly half) are about medical issues.

*The players also demand that a scholarship cannot be taken away due to injury. I don't really understand this objective, as this is already the case. People give Nick Saban crap for using medical hardships to clear roster spots, but those kids do get to keep their scholarships to complete their degree. They just don't get to play football anymore and their scholarship isn't counted against the cap. This always struck me as a reasonable compromise if the goal is education. But if the university is failing to live up their end here, that would be, as the athletes' allege, immoral. But the rules are already in place.

The next major concerns are academic. Objectives 4 and 5 concern academic issues, and both seem fairly reasonable. They don't call for an end to #MACtion, but do ask that midweek games be limited. We've seen a proliferation of midweek games over the past decade, and while the genie is out of the bottle, it would be nice if there was some limit placed on the games.

Objectives 9 and 10 are about player mobility and basic fairness. Hey, sometimes we make a bad college decision or the place just isn't the fit we thought. I can see how a rule allowing an unlimited one-time transfer for all players could be problematic, but the basic idea isn't that bad. The idea that a player can't receive financial aid during the year they can't play seems unnecessarily punitive. It's at least an issue worth discussing.

That's all well and good, but the camel forcing his nose under the tent are Objective 2 and 8. These two objectives are essentially direct attacks on the concept of amateurism, and the NCAA is going to fight the formation of this union tooth and nail just so they don't have to negotiate these two issues.

I think it's ridiculous athletes can't hold a legitimate job or benefit commercially from their status. It's a restraint on trade and on the market. If being a student-athlete isn't a job, as the NCAA will argue, then why can't players then hold a job? Why restrict their earning potential? This goes not just to a football player trying to hold a job outside the sport, but everything from AJ Green selling his jersey, Manziel selling his autograph, or players getting a check for using their likeness on merchandise. I'm on the players' side on this, but let's not pretend they aren't asking to get paid. They are asking to get paid by doing an end round the NCAA.

There's also the issue of some booster hiring athletes to barely perform a job and then grossly overpaying them for it. This of course would be the biggest issue with football players working outside jobs, as it would give a huge competitive advantage to schools with active boosters with deep pockets. I do think you can get around some of these issues with disclosure, but it is a huge issue. It's also players getting a paycheck, essentially, for playing football. The NCAA isn't going to look to fondly on that.

The big haymaker though is Objective #2. When people usually talk about paying players, they aren't talking about huge contracts of hundreds of thousands of dollars. OK, a few people are, but most advocates for additional player compensation are talking about a reasonable stipend as part of the scholarship. The demand isn't that players get 40 precent of the revenue or whatever, like in pro sports, but that they get some walking around money.

That's precisely what the cost of attendance scholarship is. It's giving players a stipend each semester of a few thousand dollars to buy pizza, video games, and maybe some books. Almost every reasonable proposal for paying players is some variation of the cost of attendance scholarship or a stipend as part of the scholarship. This objective is precisely what reform advocates have been asking for.

Let's not pretend otherwise. I agree that this isn't all about getting paid, or even primarily about that. There are seriously medical, academic, and fairness issues also addressed. And the players forming this union will likely never see the benefits of it, if it ever gets off the ground. Graduate students have formed unions to varying degrees of success across the nation, and I think you can guess how successful they've been in the deep south. So this proposal likely doesn't affect LSU any time in the near future.

I'm a big fan of honesty, though. Let's not pretend this union isn't the first step towards paying players and getting rid of amateurism in college football. They even put it in their objectives, if you look hard enough.

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