Let the players join the party

OPINION

  • Connecticut celebrates winning the NCAA men's basketball championship Monday.
Connecticut celebrates winning the NCAA men's basketball championship… (Stephen Dunn/Hartford…)
April 08, 2014|By Stephen Markley, @stephenmarkley | For RedEye

You know what would have been better than Connecticut winning the NCAA tournament the other night? It would have been better—and I say this as a college basketball fan—if Florida, Wisconsin, UConn and Kentucky had taken to the middle of the court Saturday, sat down and refused to play in solidarity with the Northwestern football team's fight to unionize.

There was a rumor a few years back that a highly ranked college hoops power was planning to do just this until they got upset in an early round. Trust me, college athletes: Cancel the Final Four, cancel the football national championship, and the NCAA will pay attention.

The National Labor Relations Board's decision to allow college athletes to unionize and the players' brave effort to do so will likely get tied up in the courts for years, which is why these athletes deserve all the fan support they can get. Popular opinion always moves justice faster than "justice" itself does.

NCAA President (and all-around tool extraordinaire) Mark Emmert recently called player unionization "grossly inappropriate" and signaled that the organization that makes billions of dollars a year from the free labor of kids disproportionately from economically disadvantaged backgrounds would fight unionization any way it can. This is strange, since the term "grossly inappropriate" would probably apply more soundly to a small coterie of elites who refuse to give their employees even decent, guaranteed health care while they're smashing their brains apart on a football field or shredding their ACLs on the court.

And don't you even dare write me an angry letter about how these guys get paid with a "free education." It's not like the model of a free education plus compensation is all that aberrant. I'm in grad school on a full tuition scholarship, plus I get paid to teach along with robust health insurance.

And how did I get this sweet package that keeps me literally hundreds of dollars over the poverty line? Oh, what do you know—I'm in a union! COGS UE Local 896, which represents Iowa grad students and the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America, which organized for the first time in 1993-94 and has since brought numerous benefits and pay raises to people who teach more than half of all the courses tuition-paying Iowa undergraduates take.

I'm also unafraid to say that the 12th man on 16-seeded Albany's roster works harder than I do, as my job largely involves reading undergrad fiction (it's like that episode of "Friends" where Ross and Rachel break up: "Y-O-U-apostrophe-R-E means 'you are'; Y-O-U-R means 'your'!").

As universities become increasingly organized and run like Wal-Marts, there are precious few levers that students, athletes and professors can utilize to keep things within the parking lot of the ballpark of "fair and just."

And there is nothing more egregious than this fiction of the "student athlete," who will generate more than a billion dollars in March Madness ad revenue alone, almost certainly never go pro, and spend four of the most athletically gifted years of his or her young life playing to put money in the pocket of some a-hole who can't even make a left-handed layup.

RedEye special contributor Stephen Markley is the author of "The Great Dysmorphia" and "Publish This Book."

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