This isn’t about investing or the world of finance (though it is about one of the most profitable businesses in the world), but I’d like to take a moment to acknowledge the football players at my graduate alma mater, Northwestern. Tomorrow, they’ll be voting on whether to form a union. I hope they vote yes but no matter what happens, I admire their guts and the strength of their ideals.
To earn the right to this unprecedented vote, these kids have bravely risked the wrath of the NCAA, the coaching fraternity, and the universities profiting from the illusion that players are “student athletes” who are allowed to place academics above athletic responsibilities. Many schools make money, some a lot of money, from the two revenue sports: football and men’s basketball. Yet players get nothing beyond free tuition, room and board. Until the NCAA changed its rules recently, some of them even struggled to feed themselves adequately. A good number college athletes also suffer career-ending and life-altering injuries every year, only to see their scholarships revoked.
On Tuesday, the New York Times ran a story on Fred Rensing, a football player from Indiana State in the 1970s who was paralyzed during practice. He spent the rest of his life in a wheelchair and his family had to pay tens of thousands of dollars for his treatments. The university threw him a fundraiser or two, but other than that, it and the NCAA gave him nothing:
“As far as I’m concerned, the N.C.A.A. just put me in a bag and tied me up and threw me in the river,” Rensing told a reporter in 1997.
An appeals court originally ruled that Rensing qualified as an employee of the university, and was thus entitled to rights like workers’ compensation. But the Indiana Supreme Court struck down the ruling and kept the current system in place. Since then, many other injured student-athletes have been cast off by the universities who profited from their work on the field.
Any impartial observer would say this is a grossly unfair arrangement. Unfortunately, not many people involved with college sports are impartial. Coaches make millions a year now. The NCAA and the major conferences reap billions from lucrative television deals. And fans have shown little appetite for reform. College sports are more popular than ever. The fact that the entire NCAA system is based on the exploitation of unpaid, often disadvantaged young people–most of whom will never go on to earn a living in professional sports–hardly seems to matter to anyone. That says a lot about our culture, and our institutions of higher education. Hopefully, the Northwestern vote tomorrow is only the beginning of a much longer, and more equitable discussion.