Taking apart the University of Texas AD's 'facts' about athlete unions

Erich Schlegel

We run through all the factual inaccuracies the country's most powerful athletic director presents in his case against NCAA reform.

Texas athletic director Steve Patterson gave his comments on the Northwestern unionization effort today. In an interview with Darren Rovell, Patterson's quotes ranged from leaving out inconvenient facts to just flat-out wrong. Let's take a look at everything he said.


"It's interesting when you look at the objections of the plaintiffs in the case; we address all of them. If our athletes get hurt, we pay all their medical bills. If they want to come back and graduate, we pay for them to come back and graduate. We do everything that they say they wanted."

Athletes don't want benefits to be allowed; they want to make sure they're guaranteed.

First, we'll look at what's simply wrong here. The NCAA has deregulated medical care to the point that schools can basically give however much medical care they want. The reason is the NCAA does not want to be liable when it comes to concussions and other long-term injuries, though that still might not be an acceptable defense.

While we don't know the policies at many schools, Northwestern's policy came out during the unionization hearing. Northwestern is typically regarded as a school that treats its players pretty well, but it still only guarantees coverage for sport-related injuries for up to a year after players graduate.

But even if Texas really does cover athletes completely after they graduate, Patterson still misses the point. The players want a voice at the negotiation table, rather than being held to whatever the NCAA decides it wants to do. They don't want benefits to be allowed; they want to make sure they're guaranteed.

"(The) whole thing smells of guys in the legal profession looking for a fee."

Yup, those lawyers are taking advantage of those poor, unpaid student-athletes. Nevermind that Patterson makes $1.4 million per year and the Texas athletic department brought in $165.7 million in 2012-13 — neither of which would be possible without unpaid athletes. The College Athletes Players Association (CAPA), which is representing the players in the unionization case, is not collecting dues. It has a deal with the United Steelworkers, who have committed to CAPA until the union financially stable.

The funny this is, the CAPA isn't even asking for players to be paid. All it wants at this point is a legal mechanism for change so it can bargain for things like improved academic and medical benefits. While allowing athletes to market themselves is part of CAPA's goals down the line, it's not the main issue right now, and it also wouldn't destroy college sports like Patterson and others claim (more on that later).

"Guys like Jeff Kessler are trying to destroy the college system to get a percentage or a fee. If they do that, they'll be destroying the greatest thing to happen to the college system aside from the G.I. Bill."

Let's go step-by-step here:

  • For those unfamiliar with the Kessler lawsuit, attorney Jeff Kessler is essentially trying to blow up the current system by claiming the capping of pay/marketability for athletes is a violation of antitrust law. While Kessler will collect standard legal fees, he's not going to become some sort of new college sports czar and tax athletes.
  • Kessler is trying to destroy the NCAA, sure, but he isn't trying to destroy college sports. All he wants is for athletes to be able to market themselves. He does not want to get rid of college sports. While a free market system like Kessler's could get rid of some non-revenue sports, the NCAA has the ability to allow athletes to market themselves while still making sure non-revenue sports remain a priority.

Fans at Texas' 100,119-seat football stadium cheer next to a sign touting the school's $300 million ESPN partnership. Erich Schlegel, Getty

"The universities, the conferences and the NCAA have done a very poor job of telling our story..."

This point is correct! The NCAA has done a very bad job telling its part of the story. Instead of making common sense arguments, people like Patterson use scare tactics and hyperbolic language. And the worst part is, there are actually some decent arguments that Patterson could have made instead of making vague, unsubstantiated accusations. So here are some free talking points next time:

  • There is a chance that athletes would be taxed if they're considered employees. We should get all of that information settled before we move forward.
  • Price caps have existed in sports for a long time. Now I can't see this argument working unless players are allowed to market themselves, but if the NCAA does allow that, it will have a decent argument against the Kessler suit. Professional salary caps and drafts could all be considered antitrust violations to some extent, but they're used to help grow their brands.

"... and we've allowed this story to be created by the sports press to focus on the one-half of 1 percent of the student-athletes that go on to play pro sports. But 99.5 percent of student-athletes would not be in the position they're in without getting a scholarship."

If schools couldn't afford to do more for their athletes, then this would be a very fair point. It's certainly a fair point for some sports and some schools, since not all sports are created equal. But the bottom line is Texas can afford to do more for its football players. And it's not okay for an administrator to justify a school being insanely rich without giving back just because it already does one nice thing.

"The difficulty in opening up free-market marketing to the half of the 1 percent is that it would create a competitive balance issue. It would be easy for Booster X to figure out how'd he'd essentially pay a recruit to come to a school."

A couple problems here. First, boosters already pay recruits to attend schools, and it appears they do it pretty easily and frequently. Plus, if you allow marketability to an extent, you can set up common sense rules and police it more easily. Sure, some people are going to break the rules, but they already do that anyway. That's like asking why we have laws when people are still going to break them

Second, the competitive balance argument is nonsense. The NCAA loves competitive balance, but it's clear that even now, all things are not equal in recruiting. Sure, Alabama will be able to offer more than Troy in a free market, but Alabama already has way more to offer than Troy as it is. The best players currently go to the big schools, and they still will go to the big schools.

If anything, allowing "free-market marketing," as Patterson called it, will actually help competitive balance. If you're a four-star quarterback, you're going to make more money doing car commercials as the star in Iowa City rather than the backup in Tuscaloosa.


There are times when the NCAA's leadership gets attacked too much. #AskEmmert on Twitter today was an example of that. If you're going to attack the NCAA, come up with a substantial argument, rather than going on an ad hominem rant.

However, America's collegiate administrators need to provide substantial arguments, too. Those arguments exist, but sadly, Steve Patterson and his colleagues refuse to use them.

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