By: CHRIS BENDEL-Asst. Sports Editor
“The times they are a-changin’.”
Bob Dylan’s classic lyrics certainly characterize the landscape surrounding NCAA commissioner Mark Emmert’s “pay for play” plight and with the regional National Labor Relations Board ruling in favor of the University of Northwestern football players’ bid to unionize March 27, the music only got louder.
In an end-run around the NCAA, Northwestern football players attempted to form a union in order to collectively bargain for more comprehensive medical coverage, education reform, and above all, a new relationship between the Division I athlete and the academic institution in college athletics.
Emmert and the NCAA have failed to facilitate change at a fast enough pace, forcing factions like the Northwestern football team to use external measures to help create a new system.
The regional NLRB decided the association between student-athletes and an academic institution meets the requirements of an employee-employer relationship and as such, rights to collectively bargain should be protected.
An employee-employer relationship would bring countless unintended consequences that could damage the college game including possible taxation of scholarships and issues with a university’s compliance with Title IX. In the long-run it may not be the answer to the current “play for pay” debate.
However, the Northwestern case and the public reaction stemming from it signalize an acknowledgement from all parties involved that times have permanently changed.
Now, college athletics desperately needs visionary leadership – something it has sorely lacked.
While Emmert admits change is necessary in the NCAA, that doesn’t mean he has to like it. Naturally, Emmert despises the current assault on amateurism.
“[Unionized athletes] would blow up everything about the collegiate model of athletics,” Emmert said recently. While admitting the need for swift change to the NCAA’s current model, he called the current, external vehicles for positive change “grossly inappropriate.”
Unionization in the college game would certainly alter the current system but if demands like the ones formalized by the football players “blow up” the collegiate model, maybe that wouldn’t be such a bad thing. Medical coverage and fair compensation seem like self-evident rights.
Instead of defensive rhetoric distancing the NCAA’s leaders and those seeking change, the organization needs visionary leadership able to bridge the gap between the new road and the old, between pure amateurism and professionalism.
The NCAA faces a failure to address legitimate issues with its structure. Small steps have been taken, but recent developments have created the need for urgent action from the NCAA.
If Emmert and the NCAA will not lend their hand to collegiate athletes who seek fair compensation for their services and revenues, then they should get out of the way of the groundbreaking changes imminent in college athletics.
Further, NCAA leadership needs to transition into the role of catalyst and mediator of changes in collegiate athletics instead of a roadblock to them.
Doing so could save the organization’s very existence.
Collaboration with those seeking change would benefit the NCAA; it could help relegate the pace and scope of change to a reasonable extent as long as its stakeholders, which includes student-athletes, can accept the new direction of the system.
The NCAA must come to grips with reality, because, Mr. Emmert, the times they are a-changin’.