K-State’s Snyder is conflicted on NCAA athletes unionization issue

It's Bill Snyder's job to collect hardware. Is it his players' 'job' to help him do it? Even Snyder concedes that 'it's become pretty much a full-time involvement for young people,' but his thoughts on the subject are mixed.

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Heaven help Mark Emmert if some lawyer ever calls Bill Snyder to the witness stand.

Kansas State’s venerated football coach said this Tuesday during a Big 12 coaches conference call when asked about the efforts of some college players to unionize:

"By the same token, if you (look) at the other side of the coin, we suggest that this isn’t the NFL, and the NFL probably has more time for their players than they do in college football right now."

And this:

"It’s become pretty much a full-time involvement for young people. I understand the issues with that.

"But by the same token, I think one of the advantages of it, if you look at it from a positive side, it keeps young people involved with people who really have their best interests at heart, and people who really want to help them grow into young men, to become successful citizens as well as successful football players."

Lookin’ good! CLICK HERE to check out our gallery of cheerleaders from around the Big 12.

Fair point. Although if Emmert, the president of the NCAA, has Jake Waters’ "best interests" at heart, I’m the Sheik of Araby.

Here’s the good news: Snyder gets it. He didn’t devise the system. Or try to reinvent it. But the 74-year-old coach has to try and play by its rules, however arcane and absurd.

The Jedi Master has had a hand in Division I football, full-time, since 1976, when he joined Hayden Fry’s staff at North Texas. He’s been a Manhattan institution since his ascent to the Flint Hills in November 1988.

While Northwestern’s football players gear up for a Friday vote on whether to unionize, and the propaganda machines on both sides of the debate fire salvo after salvo, Emmert, the Godfather, has been digging himself a deeper hole, at least as far as public sentiment is concerned. The low light was a series of seemingly aloof comments during a recent appearance on ESPN Radio’s "Mike and Mike" nationally syndicated morning drive show, not the least of which was this gem:

"If UConn wants to feed Shabazz breakfast in bed every day, they can."

"Shabazz" is, of course, Shabazz Napier, the Connecticut guard who put the Huskies on his 6-foot-1-inch frame and carried them to a men’s basketball championship, then told reporters after the NCAA title game that he occasionally went to bed hungry.


Last week, the NCAA gave its initial blessing to a measure that would allow for "unlimited" meals and snacks for student-athletes and walk-ons, colloquially dubbed "The Shabazz Rule."

While a fine gesture, it also smacked of a public-relations guilt save, a purely reactionary move. Emmert’s "breakfast in bed" comment made it sound as if it was something of a facetious one as well.

Either way, it didn’t help the NCAA’s perception, in many corners, as an exploiter of young, indentured entertainers, a wealthy, feudal lord deigning scraps to the peasants below.

The anti-stipend crowd points to the real and intrinsic value of a college degree as compensation enough — an understandable concession, given the skyrocketing rate of tuitions, fees and board.

But then there are the stories of the football player discouraged from pursuing a pre-med or pre-law route because of the academic time commitment, and how it would cut into his sporting obligations. Or the soccer player steered clear of a desired major in biology because of the scholastic rigors, and into a more time-friendly/grade-friendly emphasis.

"Well, it has increased over the years, at least as I see it," Snyder said of football student-athletes’ time demands. As the coach pointed out, all those workouts, the meetings, the film work, aren’t things you have to do, by letter of anyone’s law, "but you certainly do fall behind if you don’t."

Exactly.

The actual employees of NCAA Division I institutions — the coaches, the administrators, the athletic directors, the support staff — have their own respective agendas, their own individual bottom lines.

The A.D. at the head of the table wants to keep his coffers in the black, come off as financially self-sufficient, build up the war chest, and post at least acceptable APR graduation numbers. The coach wants to keep his or her job, which means winning and keeping his or her respective players physically healthy and academically eligible.

If Bobby Baseball wants to major in music, and his specific scholastic ambitions don’t get in the way of those aforementioned employees’ agendas, groovy. Here’s a flugelhorn, son. Have at it. We lift at 7 a.m.

If they do, well, kiss Claude Debussy adieu, champ.

Employee status for student-athletes may not necessarily rectify this, of course, unless collective bargaining could carve out parameters that limit athletic department jurisdiction over academic pursuits. It’s just another murky layer of gray in a debate that’s drowning in them at the moment.   

As to the specific point of whether he considered his players, present and past, to be "employees" — the hottest of hot-button issues — Snyder demurred Tuesday.

"I haven’t thought about it that way," the coach replied. "I consider them to be young men who are going through a stage in their life where they’re trying to formulate a foundation to be successful in life.

"I don’t see it any other way than that right now. I’m trying not to think of those issues."

He can keep trying. But those issues sure as heck don’t seem to be going away anytime soon.

You can follow Sean Keeler on Twitter at @seankeeler or email him at seanmkeeler@gmail.com.