Al Pscholka was fed up. A Republican member of the Michigan House of Representatives, he had recently sponsored a bill banning college athletes in the state from unionizing—a bill that was signed into law by Republican Governor Rick Snyder last December, around the same time the University of Michigan signed football coach Jim Harbaugh to a $5 million-plus annual contract.
For roughly 17 minutes, Pscholka had talked to me about the bill, growing increasingly irritable along the way. That much wasn't surprising. When the Michigan state house passed his bill in near-record time during a lame duck session late last year, he hardly had to speak about it at all, and never beyond a handful of talking points.
Now, however, I was demanding that Pscholka think critically, both about his bill and about the larger topic of college sports amateurism. Why, I asked him, did former Michigan quarterback Devin Gardner not deserve to make money like other students? Was he really worth nothing on the free market?
"I'm done," Pscholka said. "I'm done. You've talked to me for 40 minutes."
Pscholka was off by 23 minutes. But never mind math. I asked for one more question. True to his word, Pscholka was "done," staying silent on the line for a few seconds before finally hanging up.
Here's the thing about Michigan's new anti-college athlete union law: none of the politicians who supported the measure actually want to discuss it, let alone defend it. At least not with me. On behalf of VICE Sports, I attempted to contact five current Republican state representatives. None commented on the bill, and only one—the office of Speaker of the House Kevin Cotton—even replied with a refusal to comment.
In addition, former Speaker Jase Bolger, who has been a strong opponent of unions, did not reply to an interview request. Nor did conservative strategist Greg McNeilly, who previously put out a public statement claiming that unionized college athletes would send tuition costs "skyrocketing" and "fatten the bank accounts" of unions with "taxpayer dollars."
All of this seems strange. Even suspect. After all, the only thing politicians love more than legislative successes is crowing about them in the media. If preventing athletes at Michigan's public universities and colleges from unionizing someday is truly doing the people's business and preserving precious state revenue, you would expect that at least a few lawmakers would want to talk about it. And maybe even provide some supporting evidence.
Moreover, Pscholka's bill moved through the Michigan legislature with extraordinary speed: introduced on December 2; passed by the House on December 9; passed by the Senate on December 16; presented to Governor Snyder on December 23; and signed into law on December 27.
This is a remarkably fast timetable for a bill with seemingly no immediate purpose. During our phone conversation, I asked Pscholka if there was any indication that athletes at Michigan or Michigan State—the two biggest athletic programs in the state—were planning to unionize.
"Nothing specific," he said, "and I think Northwestern was probably more of the impetus than anything else."
Pscholka was referring to Northwestern University football players winning the right to unionize at the regional level of the National Labor Relations Board last March. The NLRB's national office is still weighing an appeal of the decision, though it's likely the players will prevail. Yet whatever happens, the ruling has little to do with Michigan.
The NLRB ruling will only apply to private schools, meaning Michigan, Michigan State, and even the lower-level Division I schools in the state would need to petition with the state labor board in order to unionize. Moreover, Pscholka's bill came out of the blue. Ohio passed a similar bill, but that was immediately after the Northwestern decision.
Those skeptical of the new Michigan law think it's just a way to limit conversation and take athletes out of the discussion about their own futures.
"We had no student-athletes," says Representative Andy Schor (D-Lansing). "I asked several questions about why now. There are no issues in Michigan. There's nothing going on in Michigan to necessitate this. Their answer was this is good policy and good policy can move fast, but that never happens."
I asked Pscholka: why introduce and pass his bill now?
"I think student-athletes are students," he said. "It's just that simple. We've certainly gotten away from that fact. I've been broadcasting high school sports for 30 years, and the message we should be sending our kids is that college is really important."
Most people who oppose college athlete unions—and possible pay-for-play—say something similar. So does the National Collegiate Athletic Association, at least when forced to defend its nonprofit status and/or amateurism-based economy in federal antitrust court. The idea (or ideal, maybe) is that elite college athletes in big-time revenue sports are actually just students who happen to have world-class football and basketball skills. Major campus sports aren't a cutthroat, multibillion-dollar entertainment industry; they're extracurricular activities, like acapella groups and debate societies.
Needless to say, this is woefully out of touch. Case in point? The University of Michigan. By all accounts it's a fantastic school, but also one that is likely letting in top-performing athletes who wouldn't be admitted otherwise. The Wolverines' Academic Progress Rate score—a measure of how well athletes are faring in the classroom—was a dismal 897 in 2008-09 and 928 in 2009-10, below the NCAA's minimum standard of 930 on a 1000-point scale. According to MLive, former Michigan football coach Brady Hoke had brought his team's four-year APR up to an all-time high of 975 in 2014, before promptly being fired for his work on the field. Institutionally, academics are a clear second to athletics at Michigan.
I asked Pscholka about this issue of admitting athletes just for their athletic ability, and he said it's wrong if that's what Michigan does, but that he has seen no evidence of it. He also said that he had heard of such things happening "in the SEC, but not in the Midwest."
I also asked Pscholka: if your bill really is about protecting students, why not follow the city of Boston's lead and mandate reforms for how college athletes are treated, particularly when it comes to concussion health and safety, rather than banning those same athletes from having any kind of collective say in changing their treatment?
The word "union," Pscholka admitted, had an affect on getting the bill passed. "I think there's some truth to that," he said. "I think you can make that argument."
To review: a bill was passed that stripped athletes of their right to even have a unified discussion about these issues, all so a lame-duck legislature could strike down a hypothetical union. Sounds like a political sop to conservatives, who reflexively loathe unions.
On the other hand, banning athletes from receiving any compensation or benefits for their hard work and initiative is both anti-American and anti-free market. Shouldn't maker-versus-taker Republicans be eager to help athletes profit off of their abilities?
"You make a political argument there," Pscholka said. "I think they're all amateur athletes."
This is semantics: college athletes are "amateurs" because someone with more power says so. Still, amateurism has been Pscholka's primary talking point since introducing his bill. He has argued that since only two percent of college athletes end up playing professional sports, they should be focusing on school while they're on campus. I asked him why athletes shouldn't at least get benefits while in school, and why they shouldn't be able to make the most of their experience while still obtaining their degree.
His answer? Then they won't want to take jobs, or something.
"We have a ton of [jobs] for accountants and engineers [in Michigan]," he said.
Okay, but let's take former Michigan quarterback Devin Gardner. What about his educational experience would be compromised if he was able to bargain for additional safety provisions while in college? Why would he be less of a student if he could make money?
"You used a really lousy example," he said. "Devin Gardner's a graduate student. You're absolutely missing the point. He's getting a benefit that could mean millions of dollars over the course of a lifetime."
By this point, Pscholka was yelling. Still, he hadn't really answered my question: why should Gardner's future degree preclude him from getting improved medical care or better compensation while in school, particularly if the free market thinks he deserves it?
For that matter, I'm a current college student at Northwestern. Why did VICE Sports paying me to interview Pscholka not preclude me from going to the art history class that I had immediately before our phone conversation? Why wasn't I considered an "amateur" as well?
Heck, why not pass a bill preventing me from unionizing, too?
Sadly, I never heard Pscholka's answers. He had already hung up, supposedly because I had taken "40 minutes" of his time. I suspect that he knows how to count. I also suspect that he knows the truth: the real reason his bill sailed through the Michigan legislature is that Republicans don't like the word "union." And that shouldn't be good enough to deny college students basic economic rights, no matter how good they are at playing sports.