By Ken Reed

College athletics in general (and college football in particular) are in complete and total disarray. During the last few months, the NCAA has provided all the proof anyone could possibly need to demonstrate that they are completely worthless.

And toothless. When it comes to providing anything resembling leadership, well, let’s just say Mark Emmert is stealing money.

The fact that a couple Power Five conferences are still considering playing college football in the middle of a pandemic — which is showing no signs of slowing down — makes it impossible to argue that big-time college sports are driven by anything other than greed. It’s certainly not health and safety. And given the professionalization of college athletics at the highest level, we know it’s not education.

How can anyone think that getting 100 guys together to breathe, sweat, cough and bleed on each other for three hours a day could possibly be safe? Colleges can’t afford daily Covid tests, let alone a couple tests a week. Also, figure in traveling in airplanes across the country to play games, being stuffed into hotels, and then lining up on Saturdays against a bunch of other football players going through the same things, before heading back to the airport.

College athletes — from hundreds of colleges and universities across the country— can’t be kept in a bubble like NBA and NHL players. They can’t even be kept in one place on their own campuses. After practice, everyone knows these 18-23 year-olds won’t stay locked in their dorms and apartments.

How could anything possibly go wrong?

Through all the planning efforts by coaches and athletic directors for a season that was dead on arrival, one fairly important stakeholder group was left out of the discussions: the players.

Unlike their professional counterparts, who have union representation in areas of health, safety, economics, etc., college athletes are on their own. They don’t have a seat at the decision-making table on issues that directly impact them.

College athletes not only don’t get to share in the soaring revenues their blood, sweat and tears generate, they basically have no say in policy matters that impact their health, safety and daily lives.

In actuality, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) is the National Collegiate Industrial Complex (NCIC).

Yes, some college student-athletes serve on NCAA committees, or on athletics committees on their campuses, but those roles are largely symbolic, done for PR purposes, not as a way for athletes to actually have any real policy-making clout.

College athletes get little respect because they have no representation in dealing with the powerbrokers at the NCAA, or in the corner offices in athletic administration buildings across college campuses. Kain Colter tried to create a players’ union to address player concerns at Northwestern but his efforts ultimately ran into a variety of roadblocks, including a comprehensive defense by the NCAA, and ultimately nothing changed.

College athletes sorely need formalized representation. This representation can be in the form of a players’ union or perhaps another model. Revenue distribution is certainly one issue that should be on the table, but so are player safety issues (e.g., college concussion protocols are much weaker than those in professional sports leagues), academic balance concerns (e.g., should weekday basketball games really be starting at 9pm?) and other topics concerning athletes’ general welfare.

If there is one positive that comes from the terrible virus that is Covid-19 on college athletics, let’s hope that it’s some type of union for athletes. With most of college athletics, from Division III to the Big Ten and Pac-12 (and maybe more conferences to follow), shutting down this fall, the time has never been better to figure out how to get legitimate representation for college athletes.

Ken Reed, Sports Policy Director, League of Fans


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