Thursday, March 27, 2014

College sports: NLRB ruling comes on heels of UNC Scandal

By Richard Mellor
Afscme Local 444, retired

“Every time I try and call it a business you say it’s a game and
every time I say it should be a game you call it a business.”*

Yesterday’s ruling by a regional director of the NLRB that Northwestern University scholarship football athletes are employees is a victory for the thousands of Athletes that the NCAA and colleges refer to as  “Student Athletes.”    The ruling allows them to unionize. The campaign for this right was led by former quarterback Kain Colter.  The United Steelworkers of America are also involved as well as the College Athletics Association that was founded by former UCLA linebacker Ramogi Huma.

There is no doubt some social pressure has been brought to bear on this long-time controversy by the firing of the Edward Snowden of college sports, Mary Willingham. Willingham was employed by the University of North Carolina as a tutor for student athletes who needed remedial reading help.  Willingham  discovered that many of these student athletes she was supposed to aid were barely able to put together simple sentences and lacked basic literary skills. She was publicly condemned by UNC officials for implying that some of the university’s star football and basketball athletes could not read at a level that would get them through college.

Basketball and Football are what are referred to in the business as revenue sports as opposed to field hockey or tennis. Based primarily around these activities, college sports is a $16 billion business that, “..coexists uneasily with its host non-profit, tax exempt institutions dedicated to education and research” writes Paul Barret in BusinessWeek.  There’s TV licensing fees, ticket sales, sports paraphernalia and other lucrative avenues that can be pursued.

Probing further, Willingham discovered that for the past 20 years, UNC’s Department of African American Studies offered more than 200 lecture courses that never met.  It has since been discovered that grades were changed and signatures forged and that most of this activity took place around the major revenue sports, men’s football and basketball.

“I was part of something that I came to be ashamed of…” Willingham told BusinessWeek, “We weren’t serving the kids. We weren’t educating them properly.  We were pushing them toward graduation and that’s not the same as giving them an education,”

By 2005 Willingham discovered that the university’s black studies department was mired in corruption.  Julius Nyang’oro a Tanzanian who taught black history and other related subjects chaired the department.  The problem was these classes never took place, they were all on paper only; officials even referred to these classes as “paper classes”.  “Any kind of paper got an A or a B grade. It wasn’t clear whether anyone was even reading the papers.” Willingham told BusinessWeek.  She ended up passing on information to Raleigh’s News and Observer and eventually went public with it all in 2012.

The folks at the top went after her throughout this 
ordeal eventually demoting her.  But now it’s out
Julius Nyang'oro All his fault is it?
for all to see. The gentlemen and women who make decisions behind closed doors are claiming it’s all Julius Nyang’oro’s doing. Ngoro was criminally indicted in December 2013 but is not going down easily in their desire to make him the UNC scandal's Lynndie England.  “For a long time, senior UNC officials have tried to isolate Nyang’oro as a rogue academic” Barret wrote in a follow up to his February piece on the issue.  But now, Deborah Crowder, an administrator in UNC’s black studies department has agreed to tell all to the US justice department in exchange for immunity from prosecution.

None of this surprises most of us, after all, in the Penn State case, another football college, people concerned covered up the raping of boys.  What occurs here is that colleges are actually a lucrative pool from which pro sports can pull recruits; there is so much money to be made that corruption is inevitable. Even on a smaller level, those that allow and secretly authorize such activity behind the scenes, cowards that they are, will always defend their own and blame a smaller cog in the machine like an administrator or lower level player like Ngoro.

But in the last analysis as I explained in an earlier blog with regard to the GM cover up of faulty ignitions in its vehicles that have led to fatalities, we have to look beyond individuals and the tendency to blame these incidents on individual character flaws. For some worker with a house note and kids in college speaking out isn’t necessarily the best thing to do. Self-interest is a powerful thing. The problem is the way education is organized; it is a system of production that allows and encourages such activity.  Capital and the wealth workers have created, wealth that is necessary to lubricate the activities of society, cannot be a private product, in the hands of private individuals.  The wealth we create must be a collective product of those whose labor created it.  And its allocation must be a democratic collective decision.

The most victimized here are the young men (and some women) who are being used by the university system.  These are basically working class and poor people, many of them young black men who, with great encouragement from their parents are trying to create a better life for themselves.  Sports is one way out of the ghetto and poverty for many, especially people of color and a chance to improve their intellectual capacity and education, a chance to get a real degree, a chance for a secure future.  For them it’s real.  For the powers that be they are simply pawns in the college sports business and the folks at the top who have treated them so disrespectfully should pay a dear price for their action but we know this is unlikely.

Yesterday’s victory at the NLRB is a positive step as it opens the door to allowing all college athletes to organize which makes them stronger.  The ruling only affects private colleges at the moment but hopefully that will change. But as I pointed out yesterday with regard to the GM cover up and all the natural disasters that are market driven, this scandal is market driven and only dumping the market will stop it.

* *North Dallas Forty by Peter Gent. E.W. Meadows, the fictional defensive tackle, injured and high on dexamyl spansules, violently confronting his defensive line coach after his team’s defeat.  Quoted in, “The Myth of the Student-Athlete: the College Athlete as Employee”

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