The Future Of College Athlete Advocacy Is Local

By Derek Helling

The history of effective labor movements in the United States of America has been one of local, small groups eventually joining to form a national campaign. For the future of athletic workers on the campuses of the same country’s colleges and universities to have a dignified work experience, the organization will have to follow a similar path.

With the unsurprising unanimous ruling of the US Supreme Court in favor of the plaintiffs in Alston v. NCAA on Monday, the current power structure has a new incentive to adapt. If advocates for campus athletic workers – and those workers themselves – don’t also modify their strategies, the exploitation will continue, but this time, with legal protections instead of legal vulnerabilities.

How the Alston ruling changes the path forward for labor advocates

To be clear, the court’s opinion isn’t a death knell to the current chattel economy of labor exploitation that the college sports industry in the US thrives upon in and of itself. The majority opinion merely upheld the ruling of the Ninth Circuit. That opinion deemed the NCAA’s by-laws placing caps on the amount and restrictions on the type of “education-related” benefits that member institutions can provide to athletic workers violations of Article 1 of the Sherman Act.

The unanimous opinion explicitly stated that the ruling doesn’t apply to any other compensation restrictions the NCAA and its member institutions currently levy. The ruling is silent on by-laws that make players who receive compensation directly for their athletic labor from those institutions ineligible to play their sports, for example.

However, the game-changing element here is that this completely turns the legal precedent in the US on similar matters completely on its head. As Justice Brett Kavanaugh laid out in his concurring opinion, those other by-laws are now ripe for challenges of their own. That’s actually already ongoing, in cases like Prince v. NCAA, which is challenging the organization’s limits on compensation that isn’t “tethered to education.”

Whether other challenges will surface and if they will succeed remains to be seen. The NCAA and its members aren’t waiting to let more courts decide their fate. They’re already moving to secure as much of the status quo as they can.

Charlatans already on the move

What’s also important for labor advocates in this context to note is that even within the narrow context of “education-related” benefits, the court’s ruling Monday only applies to the NCAA itself. Athletic conferences that members belong to – and those members themselves – are still free to impose restrictions on even these perks tethered to education. Of course, those could be open to legal challenges as well.

There are truly only a couple of foolproof litigation shields for these institutions. One would be a federal law granting them some antitrust exclusion. That seems unlikely, at least for the foreseeable future. The other would be another route that Justice Kavanaugh laid out in his concurring opinion.

Other sports leagues in the US enjoy protection from collusion lawsuits on compensation limits and other matters of employment because they are part of collectively bargained labor agreements. Many college/university presidents will probably be reluctant to go that far immediately, as that would necessitate formally recognizing athletic workers as the employees of those institutions they already are. A successful string of challenges to broader national restrictions like Prince might force their hand, though.

The movement to form local restrictions on compensation has already seen the light of day. Some conference leaders are behind a movement to allow individual institutions to form their own rules on athletes monetizing their publicity rights instead of one national standard, for example. That’s when those athletic workers will need allies more than ever, not just on social media, but with boots on the ground on thousands of campuses across the country.

An army of advocates

Without effective local organization, the exploitation of campus athletic workers will continue. Campus athletic workers need an army of attorneys, economists, and union organizers to aid in organizing their strategy to ensure they get adequate health and safety guarantees, enforcement mechanisms, revenue sharing, and work conditions. What’s more, they need that action and those people right in their own communities.

In the vein of Mother Jones, who became one of the greatest labor advocates ever due to her local organizing prowess, the time has come for advocates for these workers from a variety of professions to put faces to our names, initiate conversations with athletes one-on-one and in small groups, and lend our skills to their cause.

The Supreme Court has weakened the ability of college/university presidents to hide behind Mark Emmert and the NCAA, pretending it is the reason for the perpetuation of the “plantation” economy instead of their own self-serving choices. As they start openly using their power to maintain their monopsony on the local level, workers will need support. That’s going to be most effective if it’s a physical presence devoted to unique situations.

Derek Helling is a freelance journalist who splits his time between Chicago and Kansas City, Mo. He is a graduate of the University of Iowa, earning undergraduate degrees in Journalism and Sports Studies. The list of companies who have had the audacity to buy and make public his words include The Equalizer, FOX Sports, Legal Sports Report, and Ozy among a bunch of others he can’t remember because he’s almost 40. Recently, Helling is most proud of his contribution of a chapter on the NFL to Kendall-Hunt’s undergrad textbook Sport Finance: Where the Money Comes From, and Where the Money Goes and the fact he has somehow managed to keep a pair of Munchkin cats alive for five years. If you hate fun like he does, you can follow him on Twitter @dhellingsports.

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