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Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Activist athletes and modern sensibilities

Gerard Magliocca at CoOp argues that NCAA reform will come when one of the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament finalists refuses to play unless the players receive a share of TV revenues. He continues:

Now this kind of strike would not be easy.  Most of a team would have to agree and risk expulsion from school and the loss of a once-in-a-lifetime chance to play for the national championship.  They would be called all sorts of nasty names by fans and alumni.  On the other hand, Curt Flood went through something like that to create free agency for professional athletes.  Who will be the Curt Flood of college sports?

It's a great point and I agree with Gerard it could work. A few broader thoughts.

First, there is precedent for a group of players achieving union goals by refusing to play a major televised game. NBA players achieved their first significant collective victory  when they refused to play the 1964 All-Star Game, deciding to strike in the locker room right before game time, with ABC ready to broadcast. Bill Simmons has a nice discussion of this in his Book of Basketball and righly says there ought to be an HBO Sports Documentary on it.

Second, Gerard is right that such a move would require group solidarity among the entire time, including, probably most importantly, the stars of that team. It worked for the NBA players in 1964 because that game featured Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West, Oscar Robertson, and Elgin Baylor. Gerard says that the players would "be called all sorts of nasty names by fans and alumni," comparing them with Curt Flood, the man often (although not entirely accurately) credited with bringing about free agency in baseball by refusing a trade to a new team, and who was similarly criticized and shunned for his efforts.

But I am not sure that is true in modern times. Sports reporters and columnists in 1970 were incredibly conservative and old-school, very cozy with the owners and the league's establishment, and therefore very critical of anyone who dared to challenge the league's dominance and control. They took the owners' side in all of these disputes and the "spoiled players" meme was largely a media creation. Most of the criticism directed at Flood came from those reporters. Sports media today are far-more diverse, far-less pro-establishment, and seemingly more progressive. There are more voices being heard in more foca (hello, bloggers), and at least some of these voices will do more than give a knee-jerk rejection of the players' point of view. The same probably goes for fans. Fans dislike the NCAA and many polls show support for players receiving some form of compensation and some right to control the games they play. Fans are more diverse, more progressive, and (importantly) more well-informed about the business and economic side of the game (as a result of the greater number of media writing on these issues). My speculation is that a substantial percentage of fans would be behind the players--certainly more than were behind Flood in 1970.

Third, it also is worth noting that, while Flood was certainly criticized for his stance, he was not blackballed or denied opportunities to play. As the recent HBO documentary showed, Flood came back in 1971 (paid $ 110,000), but only last 13 games, his skills having faded from his one-year layoff and, perhaps, from the pressure and stress of his stance and the criticism he endured. We also have another modern comparison--Maurice Clarett, who unsuccessfully challenged the NFL's draft eligibility rules by trying to leave college and enter the league following his freshman year at Ohio State. After losing his antitrust suit, Clarett was drafted in the third round and signed a four-year contract, although he was waived before the end of training camp because he was out of shape, rusty, hurt, and generally not able to play at that level by then.

These two historical points are important because, as Gerard correctly notes, such a boycott of the Finals only works if the entire team, including its best players, is on board. But that superstar player not only has to worry about losing a "a once-in-a-lifetime chance to play for the national championship;" he also has to worry about hurting his NBA prospects, either by not being seen on the big stage or by being seen as a troublemaker. The former is not a real problem; given private workouts and the other processes teams use in settling on draft choices, performing well in the Final Four is less essential to getting drafter. The latter also is not a real problem, given that the NBA will accept that "troublemaker" if he can play.

Update: Gerard is not the only person talking about this today. Deadspin reports on a petition by the National College Players Association signed by more than 300 football and basketball players, calling on the NCAA to institute a host of reforms, including increasing the total value of scholarships and putting TV money into a trust fund for athletes. The Deadspin story links to a piece by Yahoo!'s Dan Wetzel calling for a team to boycott a lower-tiered bowl game, which would not require the same level of sacrifice as boycotting a BCS bowl or Final Four game, but still will be high-profile enough to get people's attention.


Posted by Howard Wasserman on October 25, 2011 at 02:05 PM in Howard Wasserman, Law and Politics, Sports | Permalink


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I tend to agree with the second commentator to the original piece ("kormal"). Paying athletes would mean, I suspect, paying them the market rate. The end result would not be the "reform" of the NCAA but its destruction. Minor sports would wither, salaries would skyrocket as schools compete for the best players,and antitrust laws would come into play breaking up leagues and probably ending the NCAA. When I try to envision the end result of such a move, I don't see a pretty picture for colleges or college sports.

Posted by: Kevin Hill | Oct 25, 2011 9:51:53 PM

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