Jemele Hill: The NCAA had to cut athletes a better deal
College football players should be paid wages. Failing that, players need some other alternative to the current system.
The forces that have worked against them for decades are powerful: head coaches, athletic directors, federal courts, elected officials, the NFL, the sports media, the National Labor Relations Board, and so on. Players can’t count on these groups.
But they can count on themselves. They should demand actual wages, a retirement plan, and workers’ compensation—in other words, some of the same working conditions enjoyed by any employee. They should also demand safer working conditions—for example, a shorter season and more free personal time in the offseason. Here’s my action plan for players:
First, they need to understand the level of power they possess. It is unlimited. The NCAA, college football coaches, and even NFL officials know this. None of these parties can force the players to play college football.
Second, players need to organize through social media. Luckily, it’s a medium many of them are naturals at using. During the same week that Florida State’s Wilson spoke up on Twitter, many former football players at the University of Iowa and their supporters came forward on social media with allegations of racist comments and bullying behavior by the Hawkeyes’ strength coach. Iowa’s long-serving head coach, Kirk Ferentz, later acknowledged a “blind spot.”
Third, players should know that data exist to prove that organizing works, and that it will have no negative consequences for them. Five years ago, members of the University of Missouri football team, protesting administrators’ response to a series of racial incidents, threatened to stop playing. And because revenues were threatened, the players triumphed, the president resigned, and most important, no players were suspended or otherwise disciplined for the threat.
Every course of action has risks, and the biggest one is that many universities will simply drop football. Fielding a team will become far too expensive if players are paid; workers’ compensation alone will be cost-prohibitive.
But schools that can’t afford to treat players properly should drop out of the sport in any event. The pressure on them is only likely to grow. By some indications, the strongest college-football conferences are beginning to pull away, leaving schools with weaker programs behind. If some colleges drop football, their players could lose their scholarships and their best chance at higher education. However, any change of policy will claim some victims, and the current status quo, built on the exploitation of football players, is not one worth sustaining.
Another argument I’ve heard is: What will happen to players who could make it in the NFL? If colleges drop football, they lose out. But legitimate NFL prospects should know that scouts and talent agents will find them no matter what. The talent-search machine is efficient and relentless. The competition among NFL teams will ensure that the best players will never go undiscovered. Additionally, other people, including me, will keep trying to start alternatives to college football. New platforms will emerge for any talented player to showcase his skills.