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May 7, 2014

Why college athletes need a union

WASHINGTON — Leticia Romero came to Kansas State University from the Canary Islands to play basketball. After Romero's freshman season - a successful one on the court, in which she averaged more than 14 points per game - the coach that recruited her was fired, and several assistant coaches chose to leave as well. As a consequence, Romero decided she wanted to transfer. The Kansas State athletic department had other ideas.

Mechelle Voepel of ESPN.com has the full story, and it's yet another infuriating example of how college sports administrators control unpaid NCAA athletes. Kansas State has thus far refused to release Romero from her scholarship, which means she can't receive financial aid from any other Division I institution for at least a year. The Kansas State athletic department has mostly refused to explain itself, on account of "student-privacy concerns." That excuse would make more sense if someone had told Romero why the university is blocking her release. The player says she hasn't gotten any explanation at all.

In the months since Northwestern football players filed a petition to unionize, we've heard a single unrelenting message from the guardians of the NCAA's status quo: We are absolutely 100 percent devoted to the best interests of our student-athletes. "We have great protocols in place and we haven't been forced to do that by any third party," explained Northwestern football coach Pat Fitzgerald, who couldn't be more anti-union if he were the CEO of Walmart.

"If our athletes get hurt, we pay all their medical bills. If they want to come back and graduate, we pay for them to come back and graduate. We do everything that they say they wanted," said University of Texas athletic director Steve Patterson last month.

Coaches and athletic directors like Fitzgerald and Patterson do take care of their unpaid undergrad laborers - except when they don't. Even if you believe (which I do not) that most college athletes get a fair deal, there are those like Romero who get railroaded and have no recourse. In the absence of any official third party to negotiate on Romero's behalf, it's left to journalists and broadcasters like ESPN's Jay Bilas to highlight the injustice. Indeed, a vigorous public shaming is typically the only way to get schools to back down from these unethical transfer blockades.

The trouble is that most of the NCAA's defenders have lost the capacity to feel shame. In response to the outrage over Kansas State's handling of Romero's transfer request, the school's athletic director wrote on Twitter, "on RARE occasions that we have denied a student-athlete transfer release, it has been because of concerns about outside tampering, undue influence by third parties or procedures not being followed in an honest and forthright manner." The implication here - one confirmed by Voepel's reporting - is that the school believes Romero's former coaches are trying to lure her away from Manhattan, Kansas. Romero denies this, but who cares if it's true? Kansas State fired its head coach, and now it's trying to hold one of the players that coach recruited against her will. Given the circumstances, it's obscene that it's the school insinuating that someone else isn't behaving "in an honest and forthright manner."

This is the skewed moral universe that the NCAA has created and that its member institutions continue to prop up. There's now a debate over whether schools should pay the "full cost of attendance" for their athletes - the expenses that aren't covered by a scholarship. Those expenses average around $3,500 per athlete per year, with the cost differing by school. Schools could make this small concession, considering it a tiny price to pay given the estimates of the fair market value of a college football player. Instead, they're whining about how this is going to drive them out of business. Iowa State athletic director Jamie Pollard told the Des Moines Register it will cost $750,000 annually to pay for the students' cost of attendance, and "we'll have to pass those costs on to our fans," in part by raising ticket prices. "It's another financial hurdle that we have to deal with," Pollard said.

Pollard didn't talk about financial hurdles in 2012, when Iowa State opened a $20.6 million football complex. He also hasn't groused about all the scrimping and saving the school will need to do to pay his own $900,000 salary. If, like Iowa State's players, Pollard took home $0 per year, then the university would have more than enough to give every Cyclone athlete a free education. What say you, Mr. Athletic Director?

While we await his reply, consider the case of Boise State basketball player Joey Nebeker. Well, Nebeker used to play for Boise State, until his coach told him he just wasn't good enough to warrant a scholarship. The NCAA's defenders argue that athletes get an amazing deal: a free education that puts you on track for a great career. The truth is that your coach can pull your scholarship after a single year, for any reason - that free education is free only so long as you're nailing your jump shot.

This happens all the time: Coaches send old, not-so-useful players packing to make way for the new recruits. What's rare is for a jilted player like Nebeker to talk about it publicly. After all, what's to be gained by complaining? There's no chance you're going to get the decision overturned, and you won't help your chances of getting a scholarship elsewhere if you act like a crybaby.

Keep your head down. Don't make the coaches mad. Be thankful for what you have. That's how the NCAA wants college athletes to think. But public opinion is shifting, and players at Northwestern and elsewhere are starting to speak up. The potential for cost-of-attendance payments, the advent of legitimate four-year scholarships at certain schools, the decree that athletes can now have unlimited food - these changes were spurred by widespread outrage over how the NCAA exploits the young men and women who make college sports such a lucrative enterprise. But the fundamental unfairness of college sports won't change until athletes like Leticia Romero and Joey Nebeker have a voice. This is why college athletes need a third party to represent them: Because the people in charge don't want to hear what they have to say, and at this point no one can compel them to listen.

      

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