The NCAA released a statement on the NLRB ruling, and it is hilariously, excessively wrong

Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY

The NCAA seems to realize that they're being threatened by Northwestern's football union, but if their grasp of what's happening is truly as limited as a press release seems to indicate, they are overwhelmingly boned.

As noted, Northwestern football players won their first legal battle en route to becoming a union, as the regional board of the NLRB agreed after a hearing that they are legally employees of Northwestern University.

This constitutes a direct threat to the NCAA, which survives on the basis that athletes are not employees. If athletes at Northwestern -- where the kids graduate, and which has never committed a major NCAA violation -- are employees, their entire business model could be in trouble. So surely they were prepared with a tactical response, right?

I don't think I've ever fisked anything here, but I'm going to do so here, because I can't wrap my head around how a multi-billion dollar enterprise currently under siege refuses to change or even make sense when confronted with their biggest threat yet.

While not a party to the proceeding

"Nobody invited us."

The NCAA is disappointed that the NLRB Region 13 determined the Northwestern football team may vote to be considered university employees

We're one sentence in and we have a major factual flaw here. The NLRB ruled that the players are employees. They can vote to form a union. They cannot, as the NCAA seems to believe, "vote to be considered university employees." Per the board, they already are.

The person tasked with putting together a statement for one of the most profitable entities in sports as it faces a potentially lethal threat made a factual error right off the bat. And not just any factual error, but a factual error so basic that even I, a non-lawyer idiot, can discern it by simply reading the first few paragraphs of the ruling.

We strongly disagree with the notion that student-athletes are employees.

"We strongly disagree with" [thing that will stop making us money]

We frequently hear from student-athletes, across all sports, that they participate to enhance their overall college experience and for the love of their sport, not to be paid.

So, this is what's really irritating.

The CAPA, the soon-to-be-union, has released a list of stated goals, which they seek to bargain for if given the opportunity. There are 11 of them. Only one of them -- asking for the ability to appear in commercials or seek other employment opportunities -- could possibly be construed as "asking to be paid." The rest relate to athlete welfare: assured medical treatment, minimized brain trauma risks, educational opportunities, better access to transfers, etc.

They don't ask to be paid because a major part of their argument in front of the NLRB is that they already are paid. The NLRB ruling agrees: a scholarship is tantamount to payment that employees receive from employers.

To summarize: It is not possible to read the CAPA's stated goals and NLRB ruling and think the athletes behind it are trying to get paid. Yet here the NCAA is, trying to make it seem as if their greed has overtaken their desire for a great college experience and their love for the sport. However, you can go to school for "the college experience" or "the love of the sport" and still not want to die or pay huge medical bills.

This could mean one of two things.

1. The NCAA did not read the CAPA's stated goals or the NLRB ruling. Normally, I would rule this out, since they stand to lose LITERALLY BILLIONS of dollars. But as we just noted, they made a very simple factual mistake in the first sentence here. So I wouldn't put it past them.

2. They're scheming nefarious jerks who know what sells.

The argument for pay-for-play is much more difficult to make than the argument that players should be allowed to unionize. One of them makes people from across the country say "HEY, I HAD TO PAY FOR COLLEGE! THESE GUYS GO FOR FREE! WHY DO THEY WANT ANYTHING MORE?!?!?!" The other is about making sure people aren't dying early because of concussions, or aren't stricken with debt because of injuries suffered while playing games for Big State.

The problem is: they can win the PR battle, but the PR battle is not legally binding. Stuff that happens in courtooms and labor board hearings is. And the people there are not shock jocks paid to express their first emotion: they're, uh, experts.

The people with the actual power to decide whether athletes can unionize will not be swayed by the argument that college athletes are greedy and don't love the sports they play. They're going to be swayed by arguments related to the facts in the cases. And if the NCAA doesn't come up with... umm... those, they're going to be boned from here til next Thursday.

Over the last three years, our member colleges and universities have worked to re-evaluate the current rules. While improvements need to be made, we do not need to completely throw away a system that has helped literally millions of students over the past decade alone attend college.

They're not asking you to "completely throw away a system." They're arguing about what they're legally entitled to in the current system.

We want student athletes - 99 percent of whom will never make it to the professional leagues - focused on what matters most - finding success in the classroom, on the field and in life.

There are two mind-boggling leaps of reason in here.

1. 99 percent of college athletes will never be pros. So why shouldn't they be allowed to profit on their athletic talents for the brief four-year window in their lives when they're able to?

2. The NLRB report concludes -- quite clearly, on several occasions -- that being a college athlete is a job which interferes with their ability to be full-time students. And I quote:

While the football coaches, and the Employer as a whole, appear to value the players' academic education, it is clear that the players are controlled to such a degree that it does impact their academic pursuits to a certain extent.


In contrast, in the instant case it cannot be said the Employer's scholarship players are "primarily students."


The fact that the players undoubtedly learn great life lessons from participating on the football team and take with them important values such as character, dedication, perseverance, and team work, is insufficient to show that their relationship with the Employer is primarily an academic one. Indeed, as already discussed above, this relationship is an economic one that involves the transfer of great sums of money to the players in the form of scholarships

The CAPA's point is that they be allowed to bargain for a better academic experience.One of their stated goals is increased graduation rates, another is academic opportunities for athletes in good standing even if their football scholarship has been eliminated.

And the NCAA has the gall to imply that a union will create a system that doesn't encourage academic success, that their way -- which according to a labor board, fails to provide a primarily academic environment -- is better.

As I said earlier, I don't know if the NCAA is being wrong intentionally to distract people from the actual arguments, or whether they've genuinely failed to grasp what's happening.

Either way, they're wrong. Exceedingly wrong.  And if they want to continue to exist as an organization, they'd better stop screwing around.

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