What a Swimmer Thinks of Student-Athlete Pay

FILE - In this March 21, 2013, file photo, in this image taken with a fisheye lens, the NCAA logo is displayed at mid-court before Albany's practice for a second-round game of the NCAA college basketball tournament in Philadelphia. Barely a month ago, the NCAA was shamed into apologizing for trying to rig its own investigation into funny business at the University of Miami. According to a new report, that apology didn't go nearly far enough. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum, File)
Photo Courtesy: huffingtonpost.com

By Colin Hogan, Swimming World College Intern

Unlike some of my peers in college athletics, I know the exact dollar value of my time as a varsity athlete. It is zero dollars and zero cents. But, also unlike some of my peers, that amount is not dictated by the NCAA. Even if the NCAA’s concept of amateurism never existed, I would have no hope of earning money from my sport. And I’m OK with that.

But I’m not OK with kids getting robbed while they put themselves at risk of injury, the NCAA making incentives against a college education, or institutional greed bankrupting younger generations of their role models. And that’s what’s happening today.

The argument that the NCAA and colleges/universities across the country frequently make is that students receive enough; they receive an education that catapults them into the rest of their lives, equipped with the lessons of hard work. They are students, and not employees.

Frankly, I like that idea. I like that idea so much that I used swimming to help get me into a great college so I could focus on my education and have a great future. I’ve made the biggest decisions of my life adhering to the NCAA’s idea of using academics and athletics to enhance each other, and I never hoped for a dime more than the value of my college experience or what it might afford me later in life.

But the collegiate student-athlete experience is broad– broader than the scope of the NCAA’s archaic policies that limit who can find value and what kind of value they might find.

In contemplating this issue, it’s useful to revisit the case that unfolded when the Northwestern football program attempted to unionize in late 2014. Everyone from university administrators and NCAA representatives to the National Labor Relations Board tried to draw a line in the sand about what constituted a student-athlete.

In the infancy of this storyline, the oft-forgotten detail is that the Chicago arm of the NLRB ruled in favor of unionization despite outcries from the university and the NCAA. Donald Remy, the chief legal officer at the NCAA, released a statement voicing his disappointment after the initial decision. “We want student-athletes—99 percent of whom will never make it to the professional leagues—focused on what matters most—finding success in the classroom, on the field and in life.”

The underlying concern here is that paying student-athletes for their roles on the field could poison the integrity of the amateur contest and undermine their full role as student-athlete. But the Northwestern football players weren’t demanding that they get paid. According to Sarah Ganim of CNN, their efforts toward unionization were intended to bargain for “better medical coverage, concussion testing, [guaranteed] four-year scholarships and the possibility of being paid.” The last of these, a mere possibility with no proposed structure, soured the pot for the NCAA.

The case ended up being appealed and losing by unanimous vote at the highest board of the NLRB. So why did the Chicago NLRB rule in favor of the athletes? In part because it deemed that they were suffering hardship and receiving value incommensurate to their time and efforts.

Despite Donald Remy and the NCAA’s insistence that they care about the “99 percent” of students that compete and are supposedly not spoiled enough to hope for compensation, Northwestern players, led by former QB Kain Colter, demonstrated that sports often infringe upon academics, not enhance them. Colter testified that he was forced to switch majors from his preferred course of study in pre-med.

And as Ganim points out, the NCAA knows that sports and school aren’t mutually beneficial. A 2012 internal survey by the NCAA found that 15 percent of baseball, basketball and football players would have selected a different major had they not been athletes.

NCAA athletes are not supposed to spend more than 20 hours each week in their sport. Colter recorded instances where he spent up to 50 hours each week in football activities. In that 2012 study, athletes reported an average of 40 hours every week scheduled toward sports. As a swimmer, these figures don’t seem outrageous.

Hold on, you might say, why is this relevant now? Besides impacting student-athletes and potential student-athletes now and as their health concerns develop into the future, this case is old.

Ben Strauss of the New York Times reported on the appellate decision:

The board did not rule directly on the central question in the case—whether the players… are university employees. Instead, it found that the novelty of the petition and its potentially wide-ranging impacts on college sports would not have promoted “stability in labor relation.”

Or, as Ramogi Huma, president of the College Athletes Players Association, put it, “The door is still open.”

And recent developments in university-to-student employment relations make the Northwestern case relevant again. Mark Oppenheimer’s article “Graduate Students, The Laborers of Academia” appeared on the New Yorker’s website to discusses a recent case where the NLRB ruled that graduate student teaching assistants, as university employees, are allowed to unionize.

Graduate students faced many of the same stigmas as student-athletes when presenting their case; seen as privileged, whiny and lucky to have the opportunities afforded to them, grad-students were long denied their right to unionize in private institutions based more on feeling than definition of the law.

This recent decision should ignite Colter, Huma, football players at Northwestern and collegiate student-athletes across the country to revisit their plea to unionize. Because, really, they weren’t told that they were wrong. They were told that the status quo shouldn’t be upset.

Yet college sports continue to rake in money, new research pours out about the long-term health risks of sports and the NCAA continues to position itself ‘on the side of the athlete’ while its knows both the time sacrifices of sport and the reality that it likely won’t lead to employment as a professional athlete.

I think it is time to shake up the status quo.

All commentaries are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Swimming World Magazine nor its staff.

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7 years ago

I agree with better health coverage, concussion testing ,and The guarantee of a four-year scholarship. I don’t agree with paying athletes. If we start paying athletes all non-revenue sports will be history including swimming that got you your college degree.

7 years ago
Reply to  SwimMom

Excellent points, SwimMom

7 years ago

The number of hours and hard work that many D1 athletes, especially those in football, is ridiculous. I’ve had friends who had to re-direct their career goals because it wasn’t possible for them to balance the demands of a high-intensity major like engineering along with football.

Another Swimmin
Another Swimmin
7 years ago

How about the idea that the athletes cannot even be compensated for their own name and image? The NCAA can use their name and likeness in advertising, and even receive compensation from, say a video game maker using NCAA athletes, but the athletes are entitled to none of it. Johns Manziel was penalized for selling his own autograph and memorabilia.

Butler Buck
Butler Buck
7 years ago

My son graduated from high school recently. He was recruited by several small D1 schools to swim. “Engineering” he told one coach. ‘Bad choice. Their labs conflict with our afternoon practices.’ “Education” he told another. ‘Ouch. Student teaching and missing a ton of practice, probably your senior year? ‘ He ended up going to an NAIA school. He finishes up the season the first week in March, then has light workouts and can focus on school the rest of the year.

He puts in about 20-25 hours per week in practice during the season. I know that football players at big schools like Ohio State, Alabama, etc., have to put in well over the 20 hour allowed maximum.

Would love your thoughts, please comment.x