On the same day college football players at Northwestern cast ballots regarding whether they want to unionize, the latest lawsuit attacking not just one school but the entire system landed in federal court in Minnesota.
Vikings defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd, who played college football at the University of Florida, is one of seven named plaintiffs in a class action filed against the NCAA and 11 major conferences on behalf of all football, men’s basketball, and women’s basketball players. The complaint describes the NCAA and its school as an “illegal cartel” that restrains trade by fixing the cost of athletes at scholarships plus room and board.
Floyd’s lawsuit contains allegations similar to the lawsuit crafted recently by Jeffrey Kessler, long-time NFLPA outside counsel who is now attacking the NCAA not with a school-by-school effort to elect unions but with a kill shot to the cranium of the NCAA.
The factual allegations are fairly simple. As the NCAA and its member institutions have grown, the system has generated billions. With the costs of labor capped at whatever it actually costs a school to allow the athlete to come to class (or, as the case may be, to not come to class) and to house and to feed the athlete, the extra money gets devoted to other forms of competition for the players to choose, and to remain at, a given school.
“Flush with cash and unable to compete for athletes on the basis of financial remuneration, colleges have directed their resources and competitive efforts to, among other things, the hiring of head coaches, instead of players,” Kessler writes in his lawsuit. “For example, upon information and belief, more than half of the head football coaches in the Power Conferences are paid at least $2 million annually, and several head coaches are paid in excess of $4 million annually, excluding endorsement revenue and other income, which can also be quite substantial.”
Floyd’s lawsuit adds that, while not able to compete for players by offering them money, NCAA member institutions “compete for players by pouring millions of dollars into their stadiums and arenas, building state-of-the-art training facilities and luxury locker rooms, and offering players deluxe dorm rooms and extensive tutoring services.”
Kessler’s complaint also focuses on the high-stakes trend of conference relocation, all driven by an effort to generate more money — more money that won’t be shared with athletes.
“A raft of conference shifts has taken place in the past few years,” Kessler writes, “with teams often now located nowhere near the geographical locations of their fellow conference members, helping to generate television revenues but disregarding the welfare of athletes who have to travel thousands of miles in the service of creating income for their schools. For example, West Virginia University is at least 800 miles from every other schools in its conference, the Big 12.”
These various allegations make too much sense to ignore. Players take physical risks and make personal sacrifices in the name of amateurism, but the rest of the system is run like the billion-dollar business that it is. Coupled with the inability of the current stewards of college athletics to say anything but the wrong thing when discussing these matters publicly, the skids have been greased for dramatic change.
And now the stewards of college athletes will inevitably use scare tactics to make the courts, the media, and the fans believe that current efforts to spur change will instead destroy the system. In other words, the folks who were smart enough to come up with a system that, while operating in plain sight for decades, managed to make scores of people rich while paying nothing to the people the fans were paying to see now want us to think they’re not smart enough to come up with a Plan B.
While they may be too stupid to realize that the day of reckoning has arrived, they’ll surely be able to find a way to run these lucrative sports enterprises without violating the law — and without further exploiting the young men and women who generate the revenue.