NCAA - A union stands up for players

“I hate bullies,” said DeMaurice Smith.

Smith, a former white-collar criminal defense lawyer with the high-powered law firm Patton Boggs, has been the executive director of the National Football League Players Association since 2009. That is to say, he runs the union that represents professional football players. Last year, he wrestled with the bullies running the N.F.L., who locked out the players when they couldn’t reach a labor agreement. Now he is setting his sights on an even bigger bully: the N.C.A.A.

It’s about time. Over the past few months, as I have been looking into the practices of the N.C.A.A., I have been struck by the fact that the players, exploited by everyone else in the system, have no one to advocate for them. The N.C.A.A. likes to say it exists to “protect student-athletes,” but it’s a laughable claim. The N.C.A.A. exists to rationalize the tawdry fact that the labor force of a $6 billion business — the estimated revenue of college football and men’s basketball — receives no compensation. (That’s what amateurism in big-time college sports really is: unpaid labor.) Coaches, athletic directors, conference presidents, the N.C.A.A. itself — they all take advantage of the teenagers who are making them rich, knowing their young charges have no recourse.

Worst of all are university presidents. So quick to espouse the rights of the student body — rights of privacy, of free association, and of due process should they get in trouble — they allow the N.C.A.A. to strip college athletes of every one of these rights. They look the other way as athletes receive a substandard education, or no education at all. An athlete can be defamed by the N.C.A.A., even have his career destroyed for no good reason, and the school, fearing retaliation, will never step forward to defend him publicly. It is shameful.

I had traveled to Washington to see Smith because I had heard through the grapevine that he, too, had begun to poke around the N.C.A.A. — and had been shocked by what he had discovered. The week before we met, Smith had been in Indianapolis for the N.F.L.’s annual “combine,” where it works out college players who are likely to be drafted. It struck him: these players were “our future members.” And whether they made it to the pros or not, they deserved better treatment in college. That’s why unions exist: to fight for better treatment for the work force.

“All of these practices,” Smith said, “whether it is compensation, due process, privacy, and the significant racial aspect, given that so many of these athletes come from disadvantaged backgrounds — they all come under the heading of fairness.” He continued: “Part of the problem is that everyone in the system starts by thinking of the players as athletes first. That is the wrong starting point. An athlete is a person first. When you start there, it changes the way you think about everything.”

Of course, it isn’t just the adults who think of the players primarily as athletes. The same is true of the athletes themselves. That is why it has been so difficult for them to stand up for themselves. They have been playing their sports since they were small children, practicing for hours every day. They have come to define themselves by their athletic proficiency. They often arrive at college with stars in their eyes. But they are also fearful of anything — a coach’s disapproval, an N.C.A.A. investigation — that might derail their dream.

Even after they have been abused by the system, they often remain silent. Not long ago, the producers of HBO’s “Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel” reached out to Marc Bailey, who runs an organization called Reform the N.C.A.A., to see if he could help them find college players who had been victimized either by their school or the N.C.A.A. Bailey contacted three athletes he had recently helped: none were willing to speak out. “My high school coach used to say, ‘Self-interest makes cowards of us all,’ ” Bailey wrote to me in an e-mail. “Now I know he is right.”

Change will not come easily. Marvin Miller reminded me recently that it took nine years for the baseball players’ union, which he headed, to achieve free agency. Just like college players today, baseball players were fearful of what would happen if they stood up for their rights.

It is unclear how Smith will approach this crusade. He knows that the N.C.A.A. will fight to the death to keep the players in their current shackled state. And given the turnover in the college ranks, he conceded that it is virtually impossible to unionize the players using the tried-and-true techniques of union organizing. The one thing he is sure of is that change will come when college athletes start to see themselves as people first, with rights like everyone else.

That’s where he plans to start.

This article was written by Joe Nocera and appeared in the New York Times.

Posted by Necesitamos Mas Football on 22:14. Filed under , , . You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0

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