Conference realignment means more work for unpaid athletes

Conference realignment means more work, less academic time for unpaid athletes.

The callous disregard for the welfare of athletes by college sports leaders who are chasing money has become too much even for Missouri football coach Eli Drinkwitz.

In May, Drinkwitz lamented the supposed negative effects of athletes earning what he considers to be too much money for the rights to their name, image and likeness. It was a bit much coming from a coach who is paid a $6 million salary to lose more SEC games than he wins. Now, after the latest round of conference realignments created a coast-to-coast Big Ten, Drinkwitz wonders whether college sports leaders even consider the well-being of (unpaid) athletes as they seek more money for themselves.

“My question is: Did we count the costs?” Drinkwitz said after the Big Ten added Oregon and Washington of the Pac-12. “I’m not talking about a financial cost. I’m talking about, Did we count the cost for the (athletes) involved in this decision? We are talking about a football decision ... but what about softball and baseball who have to travel cross country? Do we ask about the cost to them?

“Do we know (what) the No. 1 indicator ... of mental health (issues) is? It’s lack of rest or sleep. Those people, they travel commercial. They get (back to campus) it’s three or four in the morning. They’ve got to go to class. Did we ask any of them?”

Drinkowitz is so close to getting it. Of course, college sports leaders didn’t ask athletes whether they are in favor of conference realignment. They don’t have to because lawmakers and courts allow schools to exploit athlete workers to preserve “amateurism.” If athletes were classified as employees, which they clearly are, then they would have some say-so in conference expansion.

University leaders know the answers to Drinkwitz’s questions. A National College Health Assessment found that about 31% of male and 48% of female NCAA athletes reported having depression or anxiety symptoms. Lack of sleep and missed classes were among the contributing factors. Now, Big Ten athletes are going to get even less sleep and miss even more classes while logging more hours doing unpaid work for their schools.

NCAA rules limit athletes to 20 hours of “sports activities” during the season, athletes report working more than 40 hours per week. That’s because many of their commitments don’t count toward the 20-hour figure. The clock doesn’t tick when athletes are getting treatment for injuries, attending team promotional and community-service events or fulfilling media obligations.

Travel time also doesn’t count toward the 20-hour limit. Athletes are supposed to get one day off per week during the season, but travel days are counted as off-days. Big Ten athletes soon will have a lot more “off-days” traveling on behalf of the schools that don’t pay them.

I’ve seen extensive media coverage about the logistical challenges that frequent cross-country travel creates for administrators at Big Ten schools. I’ve seen very little talk about how increased travel will affect the academic performance and mental health of Big Ten athletes. Terra McGowan noticed the discrepancy, too.

McGowan, an All-American softball player this past season at Oregon, sounded the alarm on her X, formerly known as Twitter, account.

“Has anybody thought about the repercussions that conference realignments have on student athletes quality of life?” McGowan wrote. “You’re asking them to travel across the country every other weekend while balancing school and a social life??? This needs to be talked about more.”

Morgan Scott, McGowan’s former teammate and a fifth-year senior, promoted and echoed her concerns:

“Anyone going to talk about all the other sports that play multiple games in a weekend?” Scott wrote. “What happened to mental health of student athletes being important? The balance of practice, travel, school, and having a social life is already hard enough. Why add even more stress?”

The answer is, as always, greed. The purported institutions of higher learning in the Big Ten are chasing more cash. If that means adding more to the plates of athletes who already report being stressed out by their obligations, then so be it. After all, no one is stopping schools from further exploiting athletes.

The Big Ten won’t be the last coast-to-coast college athletics conference. The ACC reportedly is considering inviting Cal and Stanford, two of the schools remaining in the collapsing Pac-12. The SEC apparently is content with adding only Texas and Oklahoma. Give it time.

Alabama coach Nick Saban was asked about the frenzy of conference realignment.

“(Athletes) are here to get an education, (and we) want to try to help them develop careers on and off the field,” Saban told reporters. “And hopefully some of the choices and decisions that we make for college athletics in the future will impact them in a positive way. And I hope that we will keep that a priority in terms of whatever we decide to do in the future of college football and college athletics.”

It’s funny hearing one of the more powerful people in college football talk about hopes and wishes as if he has no sway. Saban easily could use his considerable cachet to lobby for athletes to have full rights as workers. Instead, Saban went to Washington with a group of SEC leaders earlier this year to lobby lawmakers to put limits on the NIL market for athletes.

College coaches fear their players getting even a little more power. Just look at their panicked reactions to NIL. Players who earn their true value would get money from the pot that pays coaching salaries. College athletes who could bargain for their work conditions wouldn’t have to put up with dictatorial or abusive coaches.

Most college coaches want players to do even more unpaid work to help them keep their high-paying jobs. A 2016 NCAA survey of Division I coaches found that the majority are in favor of lifting the 20-hour per week cap on sports activities. That’s even with all the exceptions that really mean more than 40 hours of work for athletes. The survey found that 68% of men’s basketball coaches and 67% of FBS football coaches favored lifting the cap.

Athletes have no one in power advocating for their welfare. NCAA schools say they do it while simultaneously arguing in court that they have no legal obligation to protect athletes from abuse. Universities spend millions of dollars lobbying Congress to preserve the system that steals value from athletes and leaves them with little power. The Supreme Court’s Alston ruling in 2021 expanded athletes’ labor rights only incrementally, and schools are busy begging Congress to roll back those modest gains.

Now the Big Ten will have its unpaid athletes work longer hours. Drinkwitz is right to wonder whether college sports leaders are considering the cost athletes will pay for conference realignments. He should know that the call is coming from inside the house.