Unionizing College Sports Pits Unions Against Socialist Principles

The recent controversy over efforts to unionize college athletes rests on the presumption that those who receive scholarship money are in fact employees. Unions see themselves standing for the little guy against the interests of the rich employer. However, far from advancing the goals of socialism, unionization of college sports would make the rich richer, and the poor poorer, in the world of college athletics.

Socialism is based on the idea that the wealthy have unfairly seized wealth and use it to exploit others less well off.  Marx summarized the mission of socialism as: “from each according to his ability to each according to his need.”  The American system of collegiate sports already works on the principle relatively directly.

Union leaders have complained that while a small number of outstanding athletes receive scholarships, this scholarship money pales compared to the tens of millions of dollars the universities earn on their major big money sports of football and basketball.  Those few who make it possible for the universities to earn this money are being cheated, critics say.  Their athletic ability is being exploited to earn money for the university and they receive very little in return.  A union is needed to convert them to “employees” who will be paid more. 

There are two points about this socio-political analysis that make it interesting.  One is that these critics say that the privileged who earn the most scholarship money are entitled to earn even more.  But a look at the NCAA athletic scholarship program may in fact support the idea that collegiate athletes don’t need more socialism, that they are already receiving redistributing income.

This is because while some outstanding athletes receive what are called “full rides,” all of their tuition, room and board paid for, there are a huge number of needy students who receive smaller amounts.  In effect, the earnings of the universities are already going to support those who have a need.  Today 90% of the earnings of NCAA collegiate athletic programs go to scholarships, and the great majority of these support the so-called low dollar programs.  The remaining 10% goes to pay for support staff and facilities.  This is a better redistribution record than that of the Democrats in Washington: they only force the wealthiest to pay 70% of the income taxes.  The NCAA acrually is doing a better job of income redistribution than the Democratic Party, which completely controlled Washington for two years and could have forced the wealthiest to pay 90% of the taxes. 

This is borne out by the facts. The NCAA today hands out over 450,000 athletic scholarships per year.  The overwhelming number of these scholarships are not full ride, yet they help students attend colleges.  And while most of these students will have to borrow money through the student loan program, the fact is the university scholarship system today takes the money made by the top students and redistributes it to 450,000 who are in need.

The plain fact is that universities support all of these students on the income derived from the few.  This in fact sounds like socialism -- the income from the few is redistributed to those in need. They are, to use the words of President Obama, forcing the highest earning athletes to pay their “fair share” to those who are in need.  Think of universities as a government that takes the revenue generated by the top ranked student athletes and redistributes it to those in low dollar sports such as women’s tennis, men’s volleyball, and a number of other sports. 

Additionally, the millions earned in the big dollar football and basketball programs are redistributed to pay for the army of coaches, trainers, equipment, weight rooms, sports medicine specialists, and assistants needed for all the low dollar sports that otherwise would have to be discontinued or suffer serious cutbacks in financial support.  And the students who are enabled to receive a college education through partial scholarships might not be able to attend college at all. 

It would seem that universities today are doing a good job of accomplishing the mission socialists say the nation needs: taking money from the few blessed with success and using it to support those in need.  When this is coupled with the idea that critics want the wealthiest players to earn even more -- and therefore take scholarship money away from those who play sports that do not earn money -- the unions find themselves in a strange situation of promoting ideas that do not advance socialism.  In fact, if their program of taking money from the top university athletic programs and giving it to the few on the top of the athletics revenue stream to the neglect of those on the bottom were implemented, those “most in need” as progressives put it, would find their scholarship funds cut back and their sports programs facing possible extinction. 

It appears that what these union leaders really want is the opportunity to seize a share of the revenues of the big dollar college sports.  And the more they seize through union dues, the less there will be for those in low dollar sports and the university employees who work in the programs.

Data source:  www.ncaa.org/about/resources/media-center/investing-where-it-matters