The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO


April 2, 2014

Geoff Caldwell, columnist: NCAA would be wise to re-evaluate policy

JOPLIN, Mo. — On June 22, 1969, the Cuyahoga River in northeastern Ohio literally caught fire. By historical standards, it was a small fire and was barely noticed by the local Cleveland papers.  

But the fire was symbolic of the larger environmental degradation across America at the time and garnered national media coverage, including a scathing story in Time magazine that was accompanied by the now iconic image of a fire boat battling a devastating blaze.  

And so it was, that the modern environmental movement was embedded across the country. (Never mind that the Time photo wasn’t of the 1969 fire, but rather a larger, more damaging one in 1952. Seems the media has been manipulating public opinion long before cable news and the Internet.)

Nine months later, Earth Day was born. Eight months after that, on Dec. 2, 1970, President Richard Nixon used an executive order to sign the birth certificate of the Environmental Protection Agency.

By refusing to take responsibility for its actions, private industry brought upon itself the regulatory monster that now breaths down its neck at every turn.

On March 26, 2014, National Labor Relations Board Region 13 director Peter Sung Ohr gave Northwestern University and the NCAA their own Cuyahoga River moment. In a 24-page ruling, Ohr determined that football players on scholarship at Northwestern are not student-athletes but rather employees of the school and as such are entitled to a unionization vote.

I’m no fan of the NLRB. It’s a political animal that causes far more harm than good, with presidential appointees backed by one special interest or another, all with pockets of cash and political influence so deep you can see Beijing. What could possibly go wrong there?

But in reading Ohr’s ruling, I think he got this one absolutely right. Page after page of examples highlight the absolute control Northwestern University (operating under NCAA rules) has over its student-athletes.

Way back when calculus was calculated with a pencil and paper, I was a freshman in college with an academic scholarship and a music scholarship. But nothing in those scholarships precluded me from doing the other thing that I needed to do: work. As long as I met the grade and kept the hour requirements, I could work and earn as much money as the day allowed.

Yet the basketball players who somehow managed to squeeze themselves into those one-size-squishes-all lecture hall seats couldn’t even work at a Saturday car wash to buy new jockstraps without incurring the wrath of their NCAA overseers.

For decades now, the NCAA has stuck to its draconian rules that keep college players at a poverty-level existence while it and the universities it represents have raked in billions of dollars in television and merchandising rights. It’s long past time to end the hypocrisy.

Yes, the scholarships awarded to student athletes have value, but with players bolting to the professional drafts after only one or two years of college, that argument becomes more untenable each passing day.

The president’s page of the NCAA website states: “We are committed to protecting the health and well-being, present and future, of our student-athletes.” The NCAA would be wise to re-evaluate sooner, rather than later, the depth of that commitment. If they don’t, the suits working in its Indianapolis headquarters are going to be quite surprised when they look out their windows one day and notice that normally quiet White River that flows in front of their building is suddenly burning out of control.


Geoff Caldwell writes on national and international affairs. He lives in Joplin. Contact him at

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