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What Northwestern Means for Collegiate Water Polo

Events in Evanston, Illinois rarely gain much traction within the water polo community (sorry ‘Cats). And so it is this week. Nary a peep from water polo aficionados on bulletin boards or in social media after rousing news out of Northwestern University that could very likely change the entire landscape of collegiate sports, including our nutty Euro game.

On Wednesday the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ruled in favor of a group of Wildcat football players who had petitioned the body to form their own union in pursuit of better medical care, improved scholarships, and (ahem) the chance to get paid.

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In their favorable ruling the NLRB wrote that the prodigious requirements asked of the players constituted not so much student-athleticism as outright employment. Thus, scholarship athletes at private institutions (public schools remain under the jurisdiction of their home states) have the right to collectively bargain for benefits and wages. Who’s ready to join the Vanderbilt soccer team picket line?!

Thus begins years of litigation and negotiation. Some are speculating the issue will eventually reach the Supreme Court, though hardly anytime soon. And the array of possible outcomes is dazzling to consider, one of which includes the perfectly good chance the decision will be overturned.

No matter: significant change is coming. As Seth Borden, an attorney with experience in labor-relations for employers, declared: “This ruling would potentially be the beginning of the end of the NCAA as we know it.” Senator, and former university president, Lamar Alexander was more direct calling it “an absurd decision that will destroy intercollegiate athletics as we know it.” Notable for its absence is the sentiment that things are just fine and will probably stay the same.

But with so much at risk the NCAA and its member schools, unsurprisingly, have no intention of surrendering. An appeal of the NLRB decision is imminent and marks the kickoff of a frenzied attempt to preserve the cash-happy relationships with the revenue-spewing sports, football and basketball. But even the NCAA likely recognizes that the current setup is doomed. Their task is to keep the current system in place for as long as possible while negotiating the best possible deal with newly empowered athletes.

What would that deal actually look like? Here are just a few scenarios, culled from the myriad of suggestions offered by interested parties: Create a new status for football and basketball athletes specifically. Players will become employees instead of athletes, paid directly or via scholarship. Or an old idea from the 70s: a super league of the big football powers removed from NCAA oversight and free to negotiate wage scales with their individual conferences. Or formal partnerships with the NFL and NBA to legitimize and sponsor the (already) minor-league status of their sports.

Those ideas and many others face massive obstacles, starting as usual with the money. Title IX codifies equal treatment for all scholarship athletes. So if football players are paid, so are soccer athletes – equally. The revenue sports would argue there isn’t enough money to do so, and they are probably right (there are hundreds of thousands scholarship athletes). And why would they volunteer to share their bounty with field hockey players anyway? College football is a multi-billion dollar sport. Field hockey…isn’t.

And what of this weird “employee” status? Fundamental to collegiate sports fandom is the already tenuous notion that athletes share at least a little of the college experience with the undergraduate hoi polloi. What connection, exactly, will the student body and alumni have with the young men who are paid outright to don the school colors?

Every clever suggestion for maintaining a semblance of the status quo in college football and basketball invites multiple complexities including: OSHA regulations (no more Boomer Schooner or Ralphie the Buffalo), salary caps, laws governing private vs. public institutions, and ObamaCare (no joke).

No, those aren’t things the NCAA or their member institutions enjoy managing. As former Northwestern University President Henry Bienen stated: “If we got into collective bargaining situations, I would not take for granted that the Northwesterns of the world would continue to play Division I sports.”

Marinate in that for a moment: The outright demise of Division I scholarship sports at private schools (public ones would surely follow). What would remain? Stanford club water polo? Division III USC? Ivy League rules for everyone?

Possibly. And the effects could be profound. Gone would be the training ground for our Olympic water polo squads (all of its members were schooled at Division I scholarship colleges). European imports, who have helped elevate the American game in the last decade in particular, would dry up. Growth of the game would be affected as those (admittedly limited) scholarships disappear.

Then again, such a scenario might not be all bad. Both men’s and women’s intercollegiate water polo is dominated by only four schools – Cal, Stanford, USC and UCLA – a source of endless debate among coaches and fans. That logjam would likely end. And there has already been a push to grow the sport at the Division III level where athletic departments aren’t as commonly hamstrung by the huge limitations inherent in fielding football teams. Those institutions already operate without athletic scholarships or huge budgets. Maybe that’s the model to follow.

Collegiate club water polo has also been on the rise, providing an outlet for thousands of athletes for whom extremely limited varsity roster spots are unavailable. Training levels can’t compare those of current varsity teams, but the school spirit is real.

As for development, much of that is already being done by ever-improving amateur clubs, many of which are led by Europeans who are unfamiliar with our peculiarly Anglo-Saxon blend of athletics and academics anyway. Serbian Dejan Udovicic, head coach of the US Men’s National Team, has already announced plans for a professional club league in the US. Young American talent could start heading toward the professional clubs, whether here or in Europe, just as soccer players did a decade ago. If Tony Azevedo were 18 today it’s possible he would have forgone the collegiate experience altogether for the sake of a substantial paycheck.

All educated speculation, yes. But the one thing that is clear: things are going to change.

The NCAA is poised to implode under the weight of its own excesses, in our view, and the forces stacked against it are simply chipping away at its already flimsy facade. Good riddance, at least with respect to much of the goofy, senseless, and downright cynical “oversight” that emerges from Indianapolis. For decades the NCAA’s thin legitimacy has been girded by dump trucks full of basketball-fueled cash (the source of 93% of the NCAA’s operating budget!) and the veneer of concern for “student athletes.”

But no amount of gloating about the organization’s likely demise changes the fact that collegiate water polo faces a highly uncertain future as a result. The popularity of football and basketball, and the profits they generate, leave those sports on terra firma. The potential loss of those revenue sources leaves our sport on far shakier ground.

The real question is, are the leaders within American water polo prepared for the disruptions ahead?

James E. Smith is the founder of Total Waterpolo, an online publication dedicated to water polo throughout the United States and beyond. He has been involved in the sport since 1980.

You can follow him on Twitter here: @TotalWaterpolo

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About James E. Smith (2 Articles)
James is the founder of Total Waterpolo, a highly recognized online publication dedicated to covering interscholastic water polo throughout the United States. In 2013 he debuted on The Counter Attack with Greg Mescall, USA Water Polo's weekly podcast, to cover the spring 2013 high school and college season. His coverage of the sport Involved in water polo since 1980, James played at Long Beach Wilson High School and UC San Diego, followed by several coaching stints, including one as Head Coach at La Costa Canyon High School in Carlsbad, CA, where he led the boys' squad to the most improved record in the San Diego County in 2002. He recently served as the head coach of boys’ varsity and middle school water polo at Priory School in Portola Valley, CA and assisted at Atherton Water Polo Club. He now runs Central Texas Waterpolo Club in Austin, TX. Prior to his work with TWp he held positions in foreign policy, consulting, and marketing research in Washington, DC, New York, Long Beach, and San Francisco. James graduated from UC San Diego with a degree in Political Science, and earned his MBA from the McDonough School of Business at Georgetown University in Washington, DC.

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