This is perhaps not quite as entertaining as the time Babe Ruth wrote an article for the New Republic about Harry Truman’s healthcare plan, but former NBA star Kareem Abdul-Jabbar recently penned a piece for the Jacobin, the socialist magazine of ideas, about the labor conditions of college athletes. It’s definitely worth reading.
College athletes are often exploited. They often generate big money for the schools that they attend, even while they can’t get paid (and are in many ways only marginally students at all). Some pundits have proposed just paying athletes directly. Northwestern University’s football team announced plans to unionize.
Abdul-Jabbar is going with the labor organization plan. As he writes:
Life for student-athletes is no longer the quaint Americana fantasy of the homecoming bonfire and a celebration at the malt shop. It’s big business in which everyone is making money — everyone except the eighteen to twenty-one-year-old kids who every game risk permanent career-ending injuries.
Unfortunately, those with a stranglehold on the profits aren’t likely to give up their money just because it’s the right thing to do. Instead, they will trickle some out in a show of fairness and hope that it’s enough to keep the peasants from storming the castle. That’s what happened in a settlement earlier this year, when college football and basketball players whose likenesses have been used in sports video games — generating millions of dollars for other people — finally received compensation.
The former athlete, who himself has managed to make millions playing sports, takes a strong line on this one in saying the case is pretty simply one of labor vs. management.
The NCAA’s power is further eroding thanks to the push to unionize college athletes, a necessary step in securing a living wage in the future. Without the power of collective bargaining, student-athletes will have no leverage in negotiating for fair treatment. History has proven that management will not be motivated to do the right thing just because it’s right. Unions aren’t all perfect, but they have done more to bring about equal opportunities and break down class barriers than any other institution.
He’s right. Whatever complicated legal arguments the NCAA can leverage to make its case, the organization simply isn’t going to treat athletes “fairly” just because it suddenly, magically, figures out what fair means.
If athletes are going to stop being exploited, they’re going to have to demand it.