Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Protecting the Millionaires

With a minimum of fanfare Governor Rick Snyder has protected Michigan from the potential disaster of college football players forming unions. Not that any players or unions have said anything about organizing a union, but if they wanted to, they no longer have the option. Snyder signed a bill declaring the football players are not "employees" of a university.
"The bill would ensure that college athletes are students, first and foremost, and should not be treated as employees by their schools," Snyder said in a written statement.
He could just as easily have signed a bill declaring that the moon is made of Swiss cheese. Just because it is enshrined into law doesn't make it true.
Football players are no less "employees" than their peers who sling burgers at the local fast-food joints surrounding their college:

  • They are recruited by the universities for their ability to perform their job
  • They signed a contract with the university, which includes a one-year "non-compete" clause (called a "binding letter of intent")
  • They are compensated for their efforts as athletes (called a "scholarship")
  • They can have their contracts cancelled for poor performance as an athlete
  • They work assigned hours, or risk having their contracts cancelled
  • They generate revenue for their employer

So how is that not an employee-employer relationship?
They truth behind the law is protecting the millionaires who profit from the labor of these "student-athletes."
It is fitting that Snyder signed the law the same day the University of Michigan awarded the supervisor of their football employees, Jim Harbaugh, a contract that pays him a minimum of $40-million over seven years:

  • $35-million base salary
  • Guaranteed 10% raises in years three and five
  • $2-million signing bonus
  • Additional performance bonuses that could add millions (he makes even more if his players perform well on the field)
  • An undefined promise of a deferred compensation package after his first year
  • He even gets a small bonus ($150,000) if his players do well in the classroom.
This isn't a rant against Harbaugh. His salary package is in line with the pay for other first-tier football and basketball coaches at MSU and around the nation (although most of those in the top tier only got the huge money after actually winning some games).
The argument against player unions – and actual salaries for players – is that it would bankrupt college football. The reality is that it would take away from the absolutely ridiculous pay structure that has been built for coaches, assistant coaches, athletic directors and support staff.
The highest paid public employees in Michigan all are college athletics folks. And it isn't just the head coaches and athletic directors. The newly departed defensive coordinator for MSU, Pat Narduzzi, was being the same salary as MSU's president, and around four-times the salary of top-tier professors. Athletic Director Mark Hollis (admittedly one of the nation's best ADs) is also about the same amount as President LouAnna Simon. (All are in the $800,000+ per year category.) All of the assistant football and basketball coaches at MSU and UM make more than many tenured professors at their universities: we value teaching layups more than teaching physics, philosophy or agriculture science.
For her part, Dr. Simon supports the current system of enriching coaches and administrators while
A "student athlete" can lose his scholarship
(i.e., be "fired") for an on-the-job injury.
short-changing the athletes who generate the money. In an op-ed she co-wrote for the Wall Street Journal Simon laments
Our concerns...extend beyond the economic and practical difficulties created by transforming the college-sports relationship into one of employer-employee. To call student-athletes employees is an affront to those players who are taking full advantage of the opportunity to get an education.
Do we really want to signal to society and high-school students that making money is the reason to come play a sport in college, as opposed to getting an education that will provide lifetime benefits?
What a load of double-speak crap. 
Does anyone think the one-and-done basketball players who make up the bulk of Kentucky's top-ranked basketball team really give a damn about their English lit class? They are at Kentucky for one reason, and one reason only: to prepare for the N.B.A. The fact that some kids are able to leverage skills in golf or tennis to pay for their education as justification for not paying the hoops stars is, quite simply, Marxist. Talk about income redistribution!
Defenders of the system quickly point out that the athletic programs at MSU and UM are self-sufficient, and the salaries come from revenues generated by athletics. That is true, but only at a handful of top universities. 
Only 20 Football Bowl Subdivision athletic departments finished in the black in 2013 according to the NCAA. Despite that record of losing money, the average salary paid to coaches at those schools has doubled since 2006. The vast majority of schools dip into their general revenues to subsidize the over-the-top salary structure for coaches. And all schools' salary structures for athletics are impacted by the mega-contracts awarded to the Nick Sabans, Jim Harbaughs and Tom Izzos.
The answer Snyder and the Legislature have provided is one that protects the multi-million-dollar compensation structure for coaches and administrators rather than protecting the "student-athletes" they profess to support. If they truly supported the players, they'd rein in the salaries paid to the coaches. Instead they protect the status quo.
The Curmudgeon once spent several years working with the Michigan State football team and got to know a lot of players. He remembers one in particular: married with two children and, even with his scholarship, dependent on handouts from family and friends to keep his own family fed. They lived in poverty for one reason: so he could work for his dream of playing in the NFL.
He achieved that dream. But repeated concussions ended his career in less than two years. He was a lineman, so he didn't make the big bucks. Today he is totally disabled and impoverished.
The coaches for whom he played, and who won a lot of games thanks in part to his talents, are all multi-millionaires living in luxury.
That ain't right.

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