Few groups of workers are more highly exploited than so-called student athletes, as they're called euphemistically by the colleges and universities that employ them.
That's right, employ them – employ them to play games that bring in billions of dollars in television money and other revenue to their schools and their highly-paid coaches.
The schools really make out at this time of the year, playing in football bowl games that bring schools millions of dollars from radio and television networks that use the games to peddle beer and other merchandise at great profit.
The athletic factories, aka schools, are like any other factories. They pay lots to those who manage their enterprises – coaches, in their case – and as little as possible to those who do the work – the student athletes, of course.
Major schools pay their coaches in the high five or six figures, and allow them to collect thousands more from manufacturers for outfitting their teams of supposed amateurs in particular brands of clearly labeled footgear and uniforms bearing brand names and symbols, such as the Nike swoosh.
And what do the student athletes get in return for their efforts in behalf of the coaches and shoe salesmen of America? Most don't even get a college degree – don't even graduate. And only a relative few go on to the professional teams that pay big bucks to former college stars.
Football and basketball players, whose play brings in revenue of more than $6 billion a year, are the most exploited. They typically spend more time practicing and playing than studying and attending classes. They get room, board, tuition, a few thousand dollars under the table or some expensive goods and services in some cases. But that's about it. And they have no job security. They can be fired –
stripped of their athletic scholarships – if they don't play as well as their coaches demand.
"You're not a student athlete, but an athlete-student," noted Basketball Hall of Famer Isiah Thomas, who left the University of Indiana before graduation to play professionally for the Detroit Pistons of the National Basketball association.
Thomas said the student athlete's "main purpose is to be a ballplayer, to generate some money, put people in the stands. Eight or ten hours of your day are filled with basketball, football."
The money the players generate is badly needed, say the schools that employ them. Badly needed, that is, to help finance the schools' athletic programs. The schools could scale down the programs, of course, maybe even redesign them for the use of genuine students. But the schools engaged in big-time athletics are so heavily committed to staging lucrative public spectacles they wouldn't even consider such a revolutionary move.
So, as long as schools continue chasing after money generated by their athletes, how about sharing some of what they get with the athletes whose play makes their money-making possible? How about treating them as employees elsewhere are treated?
Drop the fiction that student athletes are amateurs and openly pay them for their play, and provide them fringe benefits, job security and a voice in determining their wages, hours and working conditions.
That's not as far-fetched an idea as you might think. The board of directors of the National Collegiate Athletic Association actually agreed in November to allow major colleges and universities to pay $2,000 stipends to athletes who sign up to play for them.
As the New York Times' Joe Nocera reported, more than 125 college athletic directors and conference commissioners have protested even that modest proposal, which has kept it, at least temporarily, from going into effect.
It's not much, but it would be a start toward giving athletes a fair share of the billions they earn for their schools. The next step should be up to the student athletes themselves. They should – what else? – organize a union.
Dick Meister is a San Francisco-based columnist who has covered labor for more than a half-century as a reporter, editor and commentator. Contact him through his website, www.dickmeister.com