Mailbag: College football unions?

March, 28, 2014
Mar 28
6:30
PM ET
Welcome to the mailbag. We're grilling up some steaks and the bar is open.

Follow the Pac-12 blog on Twitter. Please.

To the notes!

Sam from Portland writes: Ted, what's your view on the unionization of the Northwestern football team? Personally, I think the whole issue is junk. As a Pac-12 university graduate, I get insulted every time I hear college athletes say they're slaves and that they don't get anything. I had to pay $24,000 per year for what they get for free: a degree and the attendant costs. Not only that, they get admiration and to do what they love while getting this stuff for free. These athletes point to their hours. Well, I was in the marching band and spent 30 hours a week on that as well as focusing on REAL college courses with real coursework. I didn't get a scholarship. I didn't get the massive admiration. I didn't get the shot at making the NFL. There's no Internet blog with 2.5 authors dedicated to the hard work I put in to my performances. Let's face it: Even at the small schools, the scholarship athletes get a TON more than regular students, and they get it for free. I'm not going to be dense here. I understand that the NCAA is making serious money off the hard work of the athletes, and there is a good argument that they deserve some direct monetary compensation, but the need for a union? Why should these athletes be coddled when the rest of the students pay millions (together, not apiece) just for the chance at getting a small portion of what these athletes get for free?

[+] EnlargeKain Colter, Tim Waters, Leo Gerard
AP Photo/Paul BeatyKain Colter's attempt to unionize the Northwestern football team could be a significant development in how colleges treat scholarship athletes.
Brandon from Seal Beach, Calif., writes: I appreciate the concern and well-being of college athletes, but when did this entitlement idea come into play that they deserve additional compensation? Sure, the NCAA and universities make boat-loads of money off of the athletes posing to be students, but demanding additional compensation is akin to me calling up my CEO and demanding he split the company profits with me. If they don't want to risk injury, don't feel like the scholarship, minimal stipend, and various perks being a Div. I scholar athlete bring about, there is absolutely nothing stopping them from pursuing other avenues. I don't know -- maybe I'm in the minority, but I think this is a slippery slope we're traversing.

Ted Miller: We live in interesting college football times.

The biggest takeaway for me from the Northwestern union and Ed O'Bannon vs. NCAA cases is that college football is going to continue to change in many ways over the next decade. Just as conference realignment and the advent of the College Football Playoff dominated the discussion the past few years, the debate on how we should properly compensate and support college athletes will consume us in the years ahead.

What we have is an asset -- big-time college football -- that is very popular and therefore very valuable. That value, however, has been monetized over the past quarter-century in a way that disproportionately benefits management -- coaches, athletic administrators and the NCAA -- and external businesses -- television, merchandisers, athletic apparel companies, etc. The athletes -- labor! -- have not seen their benefits and compensation increase.

Ergo, we have an argument that is typical across many commercial enterprises in this country. When many folks say they love free markets, what they mean is they love a market that they control, one in which they make the rules, which -- surprise, surprise -- makes it easier for them to make money. When folks say that market forces allow FBS head coaches make $5 million a year, why don't they also nod when market forces motivate a would-be agent to give Reggie Bush's family a house rent-free?

Of course, it's against the rules, rules that -- coincidentally -- were made by and/or benefit the folks who are getting rich off college sports.

Now, I'm not an extremist on this by any means. One of my pet peeves is when fans, athletes or sports writers discount the value of a college scholarship. If you are presently paying for a child to go to college, you know full well that athletes already are well-compensated.

But this does touch on a long-debated solution that I expect to happen in the next couple of years: Athletic scholarships covering the full cost of attendance. While that expense will further separate the haves and the have-nots in college sports, that seems to be an inexorable trend in any event. The programs banking big bucks in the power conferences need to find a way to share their wealth.

A complication? We don't know what this might mean for non-revenue sports. Title IX prevents programs from giving more money to male athletes in revenue sports compared to female athletes. If the cost of scholarships increase across the board, you will see a lot of programs cutting sports, most likely men's non-revenue sports.

There are plenty of other things the NCAA and college athletic departments can do, from lifetime disability coverage for injuries to figuring out creative ways to allow athletes to pocket some of the revenue they are playing a major role in creating. I think Sports Illustrated's Andy Staples does a nice job here of laying things out with the Northwestern-union case and Ed O'Bannon lawsuit against the NCAA.

Now I don't want to ignore the points of Sam and Brandon from above.

Unions? That could get complicated. But, first of all, I'm skeptical that we'll get to a point anytime soon in which college athletes unionize. The cumulative effect here, to me, is going to be forcing the NCAA and the major conferences to institute reforms to placate revenue-producing athletes so they don't continue to pursue legal action.

Sam, the reason college athletes get coddled is they have a highly valuable skill. You mention you were in the band. If you, say, happened to cut two gold records while you were in high school, I'd bet you would have gotten a scholarship to your Pac-12 school. Colleges love really talented folks. Not that you aren't talented. You, after all, read the Pac-12 Blog.

Brandon goes with the "there is absolutely nothing stopping them from pursuing other avenues" argument if they don't like the current system. Actually, when it comes to football, there really isn't another route to the professional ranks. What percentage of NFL players didn't play college football?

Brandon also notes that "demanding additional compensation is akin to me calling up my CEO and demanding he split the company profits with me." Well, if you have leverage and high value, go to your CEO and ask for a raise. That's the free market.

What these college football players are doing at Northwestern is quintessentially American. They are exercising leverage in our social and commercial systems.

I'm proud of them.


Keith from Teutopolis, Ill., writes: Pro days. What's the big deal? I'm confused by all the fawning over Johnny Football's pro day and by the criticisms of Teddy Bridgewater's. Scouts have dozens of hours of real game action to look at. How or why does a QB's draft stock skyrocket or plunge based on an hour of throwing a football in a controlled environment?

Ted Miller: Keith, I wouldn't get bogged down in the gushing.

Most of what you hear from NFL folks this time of year is misdirection. If an NFL scout with a top-10 pick really wants to draft Johnny Manziel, he's probably whispering to a reporter off the record that Manziel has a hitch in his throwing motion that means he'll average 25 interceptions a year before running off to Tahiti with a flamenco dancer.

I was at the Senior Bowl one time listening to a scout gush about a player I had covered who I didn't think much of. When he finished, I went, "Really?"

He took a sip of his beer, grinned and slurred, "Maybe."


Sonoran Coug from the Desert writes: Ted, I want to let you in on some information. Washington State is going to win the Pac-12 North. How? WSU is poised to put up big numbers in 2014; the Pac-12 North lays down nicely for an awakening WSU program. The no 'natty' Diva Squad plays in Pullman this year, Stanford's roster resembles their fan base, and there is a quarterback-less Washington. And while we are on the subject of Washington, ARE YOU KIDDING!! New quarterback, new running back, new offensive and defensive coaching staff. My mouth is watering for apples as I write this. Or are you and Kevin going to fall for the new coach trick again, so shiny, so new? We here in Coug Nation don't dwell on the past. P12 North results 2014: 1. WSU; 2. OSU; 3. Oregon; 4. Stanford; 5. Washington; 6. California.

Ted Miller: The "No 'Natty Diva Squad" is going to be the name of Kevin and my new band. (We're sort of a Men Without Hats/Iron Butterfly fusion with a hip-hop component).

As for the Cougs… well, maybe. Stranger things have happened.

Who saw the Cougars coming in 1997?

I was at the 2000 Apple Cup -- brrr -- when the Washington brutalized Washington State 51-3. The Huskies went on to win the Rose Bowl and the Cougars finished 4-7.

The next year, the Cougs began a run of three consecutive 10-win seasons.

As for next year, the passing game should be strong with senior QB Connor Halliday and a deep crew of receivers. The 2014 schedule also is favorable with just five road games, no UCLA and Oregon, and USC and Washington both coming to Pullman.

But what holds back my Coug optimism is the O-line and secondary. Need to see how that all fits together.

Finally, you well know that we won't fall for the "shiny new coach trick" any more than we would fall for the banana in the tailpipe.

Ohhh… but Chris Petersen is so… shiny!


Blake from Mesa, Ariz., writes: I don't know how you guys can continue to post poll questions. You must know that no matter the topic, the winner is going to be Oregon. As an Oregon fan myself, I find this comical but also annoying. Maybe for the next poll you can state in your post that the winner is Oregon and that the poll is to see who the fans think is No. 2.

Ted Miller: Oregon fans do mobilize for their team, and they do seem to vote for the Ducks whether they actually believe they merit the vote or not.

Yet the Pac-12 blog will continue to maintain its absolute neutrality and allow market forces to prevail without instituting arbitrary regulations.

Ted Miller | email

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