Posts Tagged ‘student-athletes’

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Apparently, this is the way to get attention of the administration on college campuses these days: threaten to cut off $1 million football revenues.

A student engaged in a week-long hunger strike wasn’t able to get the university’s president to address the problem of racism on campus. So, black football players, with the support of other players and coaches, have stopped practicing and have threatened not to play in the scheduled games.

In response to mounting racial tensions at the University of Missouri and an administration’s perceived failure to address students’ concerns, members of the school’s football team have threatened to boycott its remaining games, leaving administrators reeling and emboldening student activists who have been demanding a change in leadership.

Like all such protests, there’s a larger context. This is, of course, the state where, fifteen months ago, Michael Brown was killed by a white police officer.

“The demonstrations by these students are a reflection of where things are going nationally in terms of people being fed up with intolerance,” said the Rev. Traci Blackmon, a St. Louis minister heavily involved in the Ferguson protests. “The notion that the administration would not take a very strong no-tolerance policy toward hatred of any kind is just unconscionable. And the response to the absence of that is what you’re seeing now.”

And this is a president who was hired to run the university like a corporation.

University of Missouri curators saw Wolfe as an ideal successor to Gary Foresee, a former Sprint Nextel CEO who had become the first non-academic to run the college system. Even their praise was couched in business jargon.

“He can sell to others the vital importance of our university,” board of curators chair Warren Erdman told the Rolla Daily News. . .

“I’ve had the great fortune to work with a lot of different companies and executives,” he told the St. Louis Business Journal. “There’s a six degrees of separation and we can get access. Even if you don’t have a personal relationship, you can use your LinkedIn network and can typically find a mutual friend who can initiate an introduction.”

It quickly became clear that Wolfe was being brought in to cut costs in a state where legislators were eager to slash taxes, depriving the university of revenue. . .

One of Wolfe’s first acts was to approve a three percent tuition hike, drawing the ire of parents and students.

A few months later, Wolfe stirred anger again by shutting down the university’s highly regarded publishing house in order to save $400,000 a year. After an outcry from professors and authors across the country, however, Wolfe changed course.

The controversy was heightened by the fact that Wolfe was, at the same time, pushing for a $72 million expansion of the university’s football stadium.

Last year, the board of curators voted to extend Wolfe’s contract, praising him for his business-minded approach.

“President Wolfe has thoughtfully transformed our strategic planning process in a way that focuses our limited resources on priorities while reducing or eliminating waste and redundancies,” the board said in a statement.

This semester, however, Wolfe’s corporate cost-cutting appeared to go too far.  Just a few days before the start of the semester, the university announced it was eliminating subsidies that graduate students use to pay for health insurance.

Graduate students revolted. Thousands, including Butler, protested against the cuts. They issued demands and walked out of classes. Ultimately, the university relented and restored the subsidies.

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I’ve made the case before that student-athletes are performing unpaid labor. That is, U.S. colleges and universities produce and sell athletic performances—especially, but not only, football and basketball games—that are produced by student-athletes who are not paid anything for their labor.

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The question then is, who’s benefiting from that unpaid labor? It’s certainly not the professors who teach at those schools (nor, for that matter, the staff who keep the academic programs and infrastructure running). Faculty members are not making anywhere near what the athletic coaches do, and their salary increases have lagged far behind the amount of money being paid to coaches in recent years.

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And much more money is being spent on athletic programs—although clearly not in the form of pay to the players—than on academic programs.

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So, where are all those revenues from the athletic program going? As it turns out, the single biggest outlay—more than a third—is for coaches’ salaries.

Apparently, according to a recent article on the Huffington Post [ht: ja], that’s the reason so many coaches are opposed to paying college athletes for their labor.

“Schools quite often move around or spend money to basically get rid of excess revenue — what would be called profit in a profit-making corporation,” said Michael Leeds, a professor of economics at Temple University. “‘[That’s why] you have several coaches [in the NCAA] getting paid NFL money, despite working for an enterprise that really does not match what the New England Patriots and the New York Giants take in.”

That would explain why some universities end up with state-of-the-art sports facilities. Or why Duke basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski makes nearly $10 million per year, much more than the typical NBA coach. Or why in so many states, the best-paid public employee is a basketball or football coach. . .

“The coaches very likely are very upset over [the prospect of] players being paid because, for one thing, that means a pay cut for them,” Leeds said.

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Recent legal decisions—such as the NLRB’s ruling that Northwestern University’s football players are employees of the school and are therefore entitled to a union election, and U.S. District Judge Claudia Wilken’s ruling on the so-called O’Bannon case, which will enable football and men’s basketball players to receive more from schools than they are receiving now—have raised lots of important questions about how we look at and compensate the work performed by student-athletes in American colleges and universities.

One of the most interesting issues has to do with unpaid labor. Here’s the New York Times editorial board on the O’Bannon ruling:

The N.C.A.A. and its member institutions have no one to blame but themselves for any unintended negative consequences. They built a lucrative commercial enterprise that depended in large part on unpaid labor. Now they have to move forward without exploiting the very students they have always purported to protect.

That’s right: U.S. colleges and universities have been producing and selling athletic performances—especially, but not only, football and basketball games—that are produced by student-athletes who are not paid for their labor. The players do receive some compensation, such as tuition and room and board (and, on the O’Bannon ruling, will be permitted to receive money to defray some additional costs of attending school) but they are not being paid for the total value they produce for the schools they attend. Therefore, the players are performing unpaid labor.*

But why stop there? It may be easier to see unpaid labor when workers, such as student-athletes, receive absolutely no pay—and their employers are raking in huge sums of money from the work they perform. But why not then identify and do something about all the other forms of unpaid labor being performed in our economy? I’m thinking, for example, of autoworkers, restaurant employees, nurses, daycare workers, and so on, all of whom receive wages but wages that are much less than the total value they produce. They, too, are performing unpaid labor, which is then appropriated by their employers and serves as the source of the enterprises’ profits. 

No amount of tinkering with workers’ compensation—whether in the form of establishing a trust fund for student-athletes or raising minimum wages or increasing wages through market pressure or collective bargaining—will ultimately eliminate that unpaid labor. It may diminish it, by changing the ratio of unpaid to paid labor, but vast amounts of unpaid labor will continue to exist.

And that’s the problem that needs to be solved, both on American campuses and in the wider economy.

*In Marxian terms, the players are productive laborers and, by virtue of creating surplus-value, are being exploited by their capitalist employers, the boards of trustees of the colleges and universities where they work. Much of that extra value is retained by the athletic departments (which is then used to pay head coaches, their coaching staffs, and to build new, start-of-the-art athletic facilities), and another large portion is distributed to the NCAA. Hence, the opposition of the schools, coaches, and the NCAA to any measure that increases the bargaining power of the student-athlete-workers.

April 28, 2014

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