Everett Golson’s academic suspension, Wes Lunt’s limited transfer options, and the continued institutional bumbling that is O’Bannon v. NCAA are three offseason stories that don’t seem to have anything to do with one another. Scratch that – they don’t have anything to do with one another. But what if that changes?
Which is to say: if the NCAA loses or settles the O’Bannon case and players start seeing some cut of the action (an outcome I’d welcome), how does that change the tone of stories like Golson’s and Lunt’s? Right now, Mike Gundy looks like a control freak and Lunt the victim. Does that change if Lunt’s received a potentially significant amount of money from Oklahoma State? Paying student-athletes potentially means we stop comparing them to other students in scenarios like a transfer and start thinking of them as something else: employees. A coach telling an unpaid athlete where he can and can’t leave for seems pretty plainly unfair. A boss telling an employee with insider knowledge where he can and can’t work next? That’s a little hazier.
And, in Golson’s case, how do we address a potentially lengthy suspension for non-criminal behavior when that punishment is being visited on someone who’s job really isn’t to be in school first and foremost? (Please note: I don’t think academics are the first priority for student-athletes in the present system, but paying players makes that a little more front and center.) Is preventing Golson from playing for Notre Dame – and collecting the pay that goes with that – unnecessarily adhering to a meaningless fiction? Or does the threat of missing time and money become a perversely necessary incentive for athletes to maintain their grades?
The potential danger is that by focusing so single-mindedly on compensation as the primary injustice of college athletics, we risk justifying every non-compensation related power imbalance if and when players do start getting paid. Long term injury becomes a bargained-for risk. Shepherding players into and through school who aren’t getting anywhere near the full academic value of a college degree becomes an acceptable cost of business. If this sounds unlikely to you, consider how quickly “BUT THEY GET PAID A LOT TO PLAY A GAME” gets trotted out anytime professional athletes try to negotiate for better working conditions.
I don’t know how the Lunt and Golson stores are different, or how a whole host of issues – greyshirting, scholarship limits, walk-on players – change if amateurism comes to an end. At present, once an athlete signs his letter of intent, the balance of power is decidedly shifted against him for the rest of his college career. The question is, does making players more like employees shift that power structure, or solidify it?