Judges Verdict: College Athletes the Same as Prisoners


cropped-LOGO.pngScholarship athletes are exceptionally hard to describe. They’re more encumbered with privileges and responsibilities than the average student. What they should be compared to is the question recently put to a panel of NCAA-friendly federal judges, who after careful consideration came up with their own shocking comparison: prisoners.

Yes, you read that right. Prisoners.

A three-judge panel for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, the NCAA’s home court reasoned that college athletes have no more right to ask whether they might be employees than inmates laboring in jails.

Meanwhile, College athletic departments are making more money than ever — and spending it just as fast. The Seventh Circuit’s distorted reasoning bears repeating. College athletes are similar to prisoners economically because the “revered tradition of amateurism” in college spanning more than 100 years “defines the economic reality of the relationship between student-athletes and their schools,” the court wrote. As with inmates, asking any questions about who benefits from their work would “fail to capture the true nature of their relationship.” In other words, amateurism is as confining and defining as jail.

Then the court went one step further and declared, “Simply put, student-athletic ‘play’ is not ‘work,’ as least as the term is used in the Fair Labor Standards Act.”

You might be inclined to agree with that statement and prefer to see it grounded in more than an inmate case, but the Seventh Circuit shut down further discussion. “No discovery or further development of the record” would be helpful, it wrote.

The true nature of the scholarship-athlete’s relationship to campus needs to be defined.  For one thing, it has changed dramatically over a century. A hundred years ago, coaches were unpaid volunteers. Now, Alabama’s Nick Saban earns almost $7 million a year and Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh $9 million, with contractual bonuses for wins, and they determine the hours and activities of athletes more powerfully than any employer. Athletes might be “amateur,” but they put in more hard labor than any work-study student toiling in the college library or cafeteria for wages. Even the collegians manning the concessions in the stadiums on game day make $7.25 an hour.

College athletes should have an venue to ask hard questions about their situation on campus. Are they working unreasonable overtime hours that make it hard to progress to a degree? Is their experience advancing or impeding their education?

The answer will not necessarily result in a slam-dunk ruling against the NCAA. It might actually favor the status quo and demonstrate the real values of scholarship and the educational content of varsity sports. We’ll never know — because the judges were apparently too alarmed even to ask the questions.

Personally, I’m unconvinced that athletes should be directly paid by their universities. I believe they are well recompensed through their scholarships, and if we want to give them more, we should enhance their educations, while letting them earn what they can off the field from their likenesses and jersey sales. Also, labor law doesn’t strike me as the right tool for solving the cavernous inequities and complexities of an NCAA system that generates a half-billion dollars in football bowl payouts yet also supports all the other nonrevenue sports.

Still, it would be very interesting to hear a legal opinion of the confusing labor relationship athletes have to their campuses that yield enormous revenue from their performance.

What do you think?



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February 11, 2017