Mark Emmert, President

700 W. Washington Street
P.O. Box 6222
Indianapolis, Indiana 46206

(An Open Letter to NCAA President Mark Emmert About That Pesky Northwestern Union Thing)

Dear Dr. Emmert:

Since National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) regional director Peter Sung Ohr recently ruled that Northwestern University football players meet the necessary conditions to qualify as employees of the university, and thus, can unionize, your trusty amateurism model has been officially challenged, foreshadowing a long struggle around the country that the NCAA ultimately cannot win.

Rather than just playing defense and trying to slow the inevitable, it’s suggested here that you adopt a proactive strategy, doing the right thing in the process. Here are a few modest actions that you and your university presidents could implement quickly to help ease the pain from the PR sting you’re currently experiencing:

1) Cover All Sports-Related Medical Expenses for Athletes and Immediately Disallow the Pulling of Scholarships From Athletes Who Suffer Injuries While Engaged in Sports Activities For Their School

Currently, there are athletes losing their athletic scholarships (or having them reduced) due to injuries occurred during athletic competition for their university. That’s simply wrong.

As the National College Players Association (NCPA), headed by former UCLA linebacker Ramogi Huma says, “It is immoral to allow a university to reduce or refuse to renew a college athlete’s scholarship after sustaining an injury while playing for the university.”

Even worse is the fact that some schools aren’t paying for all — or part – of athletes’ medical expenses that are clearly tied to sports-related injuries. Those situations need to stop.

2) Require Athletic Scholarships to Cover the Full-Cost of College Attendance and Be For Five Years

“Full” athletic scholarships should be just that and cover the full-cost of college attendance for students.

According to NCPA and Drexel University research, the average scholarship shortfall (out-of-pocket expenses) for each “full” scholarship athlete was approximately $3,222 per player during the 2010-11 school year.

Many major college football and basketball players come from impoverished circumstances and struggle to cover these expenses. The NCPA suggests these additional scholarship costs could be easily covered by using a relatively small percentage of post-season revenues. That sounds reasonable.

In addition, athletic scholarships should be for five years instead of year-to-year. That would prevent coaches and athletic directors from “firing” athletes due to injuries or athletic performance reasons – even when they are excelling in the classroom. After all, what is your priority here – academics or athletes?

3) Develop Policies That Eliminate Weekday Football Games

Academic performance is hindered, and graduation rates are damaged, by the growing number of NCAA Division I football games that take place on weekdays. In order to honor the NCAA’s stated mission “to integrate intercollegiate athletics so that the educational experience of the student athlete is paramount” weekday games need to be eliminated.

Scheduling Tuesday and Wednesday night football games is not in the best interests of students’ educational work.

4) Adopt the Olympic Model of Allowing Athletes to Benefit Economically From Their Fame

Economically, college football and basketball players continue to be exploited. According to a study by the NCPA and the Drexel University Sport Management Department, football and men’s basketball players at top sports schools are being denied at least $6.2 billion [AE1] between 2011 and 2015 under National Collegiate Athletic Association rules that prohibit them from being paid.

Admittedly, paying athletes’ salaries as university employees is a complex challenge that could take time to sort out. However, allowing college athletes to receive money from outside the athletic department is much more straightforward and can happen quickly.

It’s fair and just. And it gets rid of a lot of the hypocrisy in college sports.

It’s time to let athletes benefit from their fame and likeness like every other student at our colleges and universities is able to do. Let them take endorsement money to wear a certain brand of shoes like the coaches that lead them. If the local auto parts store wants to pay a college athlete to sign autographs for two hours during a store sale, why shouldn’t the athlete be allowed to take that opportunity? Certainly, some precautions must be established; for example, contracts between players and vendors designed to shield athletes from improper influences such as gamblers.

College students on music scholarships are free to accept benefits for playing a weekend gig at the local club. Why treat athletes differently than every other student on campus?

The Olympics money machine eventually dumped the amateur myth and allowed athletes to make money from their athletic ability and fame. And guess what? The Olympics are more popular than ever, though some training methods and motives are more likely to be questioned today.

Here’s a novel way to start your next NCAA brainstorming session. Walk to the whiteboard and write this question: “What’s in the best interests of our athletes?”

That should allow you and your colleagues to start off on the right path.


Ralph Nader, Founder, League of Fans

Ken Reed, Sports Policy Director, League of Fans


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