I do not come from a sports family, but it's impossible to live in rural Wisconsin and not be affected by sports teams. So last night we watched Wisconsin play Kentucky in the semi-finals.
Well, we sort of watched it. The game was only on cable, which we don't have, and neither does anyone who lives near us. We tried to do a a bunch of things in order to be able to stream the game but streaming video is something for city people I think – Internet speeds in rural America are second rate, at best. And I can't help thinking of the irony that both Kentucky and Wisconsin are largely rural states, full of people who could not watch the game.
It's hard for me to get excited about basketball as a sport, but I do like the politics. Kentucky is a team that recruits the top high school players from across the country. Those players could go straight to the NBA – and get paid – but instead the NBA forces them to play for free in the NCAA and then go to the NBA. That works out great for the NBA because the kids would need a lot of training that the university system does at no cost to the NBA. And the university gets players working for free for a year.
In case you had doubts about how much money everyone's making from that free labor, 80,000 people bought $250 tickets to watch the game in Dallas last night.
Schools would say that in exchange for playing, the students get an education. This is not true of Kentucky players, who have no pretense of staying more than one year in college. The Wisconsin players will play for four years. (Not because Wisconsin is dedicated to educating basketball players, but because coach Bo Ryan doesn't like coaching players who are used to being stars. He likes to recruit and mold players over four years to play the way he prefers.)
But the National Labor Relations Board just ruled that in fact, the four-year education that college athletes get is not as valuable as the time they spend playing their sport. The Northwestern football team just won the right to unionize, and you can bet that those players, who lose a lot because they are academically top-tier, will give unionization a shot.
Washington Post concludes that this will open "a Pandora's box" and the Salt Lake Tribune writes, "Man oh man, just think of the unintended or unimaginable consequences."
The unintended consequence is that the National Labor Relations Board just determined that a four-year college degree at an academically top-ranked school (which Northwestern is) is not worth as much over a lifetime as what a third-string football player contributes over the course of four years.
As far as I can tell, this is the first legal example that defines the worthlessness of a college education.
The Northwestern ruling is likely to be the beginning of a domino effect where the economics and ethics of higher education change in a big way. Thank goodness.