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Jim Phillips misses the facts on unionization and NCAA change

Northwestern athletic director Jim Phillips is at the Big Ten ADs meeting today, and for the first time, he's been able to speak candidly about the NU football team's unionization effort.

Not surprisingly, Phillips is against the union and he said what was expected, even though his thoughts don't really matter in the scheme of things.

But perhaps more surprising is the methodology he used to explain his position, which was documented by ESPN's Adam Rittenberg. Having an opinion is one thing; misrepresenting facts and reality is another, and on Tuesday, Phillips pushed forward talking points similar to those of Baylor president Ken Starr and Stanford athletic director Bernard Muir at a House hearing last week.

Let's take a look at Phillips' quotes in Rittenberg's article to see what he got wrong. There are two main points.

Issue 1: Affordability

"Accessibility and affordability are the two things college athletics has provided for a number of years," Phillips said. "It's given a population in our world, certainly in our country, the opportunity to use sport to access great education."

But what about all the money major-conference schools are generating, and the even bigger projected revenues in the near future? Phillips pointed to the low percentage of athletic departments that operate in the black.

Northwestern can afford to pay its players, and it can certainly afford to pay more in medical benefits. Does the athletic department lose money? Of course. But as economist Andy Schwarz said at the House hearing — and I wrote afterward — the reckless spending of collegiate athletic departments does not mean those same athletic departments cannot afford to pay their primary revenue generators.

"The idea that this is a money-losing industry is incredible," Schwarz said. "If you look at a money-losing industry, you wouldn't see rising employee [coaches] pay, you wouldn't see firms flocking to join the industry. The money is in the system. It's just that it's being denied to the primary generators."

And more from that article:

Schwarz compared the NCAA to a rich investment banker on Wall Street who makes over a million dollars per year. That's a lot of money. But what if the same investment banker buys a lavish apartment on the Upper East Side and a vacation home in the Hamptons, and then has some kids and needs to change his lifestyle? Of course, he won't want to do that and could claim he doesn't have money to raise his kids. But he does if he reallocates his money.

This is the same predicament facing the NCAA. Its schools need to operate in budget. But they also want to, as Schwarz said it, build "recruiting palaces," shifting the burden of funding athletes to tax-funded Pell grants.

Instead of spending a little extra money on providing benefits to players that would be bargained for after unionization, Northwestern chooses to spend its money on marketing, high salaries, promotions, national schedules for non-revenue sports and other such things.

Phillips and others will claim that if football spending is increased, NU will be forced to drop all non-revenue sports to keep up, but that simply isn't true. Schools already fund far more non-revenue sports than they are forced to by Title IX, and they still keep up (football giant Ohio State funds a sport called "rifle"). And there is still far more discretionary spending that can be cut — like what's listed in the paragraph above — before non-revenue sports will go away.

Northwestern is not going to cut its non-revenue sports if it's forced to pay players, and it's certainly not going to do that if it has to pay a little bit more in medical benefits — not with the potential PR nightmare that comes with it and an annual $44.5 million payment coming from the Big Ten starting in 2017.

The O'Bannon judge has shut down this argument. Economics has shut down this argument. It's time Jim Phillips shuts down this argument.

Issue 2: Title IX Equality

"If we want to ignore broad-based programming and we want to ignore equality and doing things equitable, you're going to get a completely different collegiate model," he said. "I'm not in favor of that. Maybe some people are. 

"Are there more things we can and should be thinking about for our student-athletes? Yes. But it needs to be done in a way that really is prudent and equitable and doesn't just pay attention to one sport."

Title IX could certainly be at play when Northwestern is at the bargaining table with its athletes. If the football players ask for more medical coverage, there's a chance lacrosse players will need to get the same benefits. However, this is affordable, as I explained above, and it's important to remember that this is bargaining, and that the football players aren't going to ask for things that will bankrupt the school.

But it's also time to debunk the myth that schools are already fully compliant with Title IX when it comes to spending. Northwestern provides an equal number of scholarships to men's and women's sports, as it is forced to by Title IX, but the spending is not the same. This happens at most big schools, and Andy Schwarz provides a good breakdown of the spending at Baylor.

Let's take a look at Northwestern's spending from the Department of Education numbers:

In the 2012-13 year, the athletic department spent 79.5% of what it spent in aid on men's sports on women's sports ($8,929,165 to $7,095,409) despite having almost an equal split of scholarships (242 women, 241 men). NU 's operating expenses come out to spending $22,231 per male athlete and $8,811 per female athlete, while overall aid spending comes out to $37,000 per male athlete and $29,000 per female athlete. [Update: This section has been updated for clarity and to fix the percentage difference spent in aid on men's and women's sports].

This is hardly criminal, since everyone does it, but the point remains: Spending equality is not equal now, and that will not change if athletes are allowed to get benefits or be paid.


Jim Phillips genuinely wants change, and he expressed a more progressive view of the future than most of his colleagues. That was evident in his quotes documented by Rittenberg:

"We've asked them in the past to be in an advisory role. We need them to be in an active, voting capacity. No one is living the experience like they are. We can do that in a way that makes sense, and it's necessary."

However, Phillips' personal feelings aside, the fear he has of unionization and of a college sports landscape without amateurism is short on facts. And if you're the athletic director of a major university, you have to do better than to say, "I know [unionization] is not the right mechanism for change nationally."

That kind of rhetoric won't hold up in court, and Phillips should know that, since it already didn't hold up at the regional office of the NLRB.