11/09/2011 10:26 am ET Updated Jan 09, 2012

Off Pitch: What Glee Can Teach Us About College Athletics

The popular television series Glee chronicles the lives of students participating in a high school glee club. The show, a ratings juggernaut and regular Emmy nominee, resonates with viewers and critics alike. Many characters on this show have dreams of performing professionally, and this backdrop serves as a fitting analogy to the issues faced by student-athletes participating in college athletics.

Let's pretend that these high school seniors wish to combine their passion and talent by entering the entertainment industry. Why don't these singers head right to Broadway? Well, as reached through collective bargaining, the Professional Glee Club League (PGCL) which oversees all professional glee club activity, and the union representing these performers, the Glee Club Association (GCA) have agreed that three years must pass after high school before these individuals can enter their chosen profession.

With no minor league available for these singers and dancers to hone their craft, they begin the process of reviewing offers as some of the finest college glee teams in the country recruit them. High stakes recruiting is undertaken for these amazing performers by college coaches who are paid millions of dollars to attract and coach the finest talent. Assurances are made, occasionally enticements are proffered, and college selections are made. The promise: join our collegiate glee team and we'll provide you with full tuition for a college education.

Overseeing all collegiate glee club activity is The National Collegiate Glee Club Association (NCGCA) as it determines the parameters for recruiting, eligibility for participation, governs schools' relationships with its students, sets team and practice limits, orchestrates tournaments, and ensures "fair competition" between glee clubs. Before a student may commit to a school, they are required to sign a National Letter of Intent (NLI). The NLI, drafted by the NCGCA with no input from students, binds the recruit to the institution. Unfortunately the terms of the NLI are non-negotiable -- either the student signs them or is unable to participate in the NCGCA.

Now, once the NLI is signed, and after promising the student and his family that "he'll always be there for the student," the coach breaks his current contract for a job with a larger salary at a school with a more prestigious glee club. The student, who believed everything the coach and his staff promised him during the recruiting period, is unable to transfer unless he's willing to sit out of glee club competition for an entire year.

Arriving on campus, armed with a "full scholarship" the student realizes that there is a gap between the scholarship and the full cost of attendance at his school. Alas, the student is unable to perform or otherwise get a part-time job to make enough money to cover his expenses. Why? Because the NCGCA has determined he is an "amateur" -- using the NCGCA's manufactured definition -- and getting paid would be an extra benefit unavailable to other students.

The student is required, year round, to participate 20 hours per week, excluding exercise and physical therapy time, to perfect his craft. While other students study, go to movies, and hit the occasional party, our glee club performer does all he can between studying, training his voice, practicing his craft, and traveling to competitions just to stay academically eligible. He is unable to major in any of the sciences because he's told "lab time conflicts with glee club practice."

Recruited to be the lead baritone, during his freshman year the new coaching regime shifts him to backup tenor for "the good of the team." During his sophomore year the student is injured during a competition where he suffers complications to his vocal chords. Despite all the tea and honey he can endure, at the end of the season he is told that, regrettably, his voice has changed so the school won't be renewing his scholarship. When he questions this he realizes that the "four-year commitment" made by the institution was really four one-year contracts -- terminable at will by the school.

With the newfound success of glee clubs, the NCGCA negotiates with the entertainment industry to televise these competitions; and each week dozens are broadcast nationally. Ratings soar and the NCGCA develops a year-end tournament -- selling the broadcasting rights for $5 billion dollars over a 8 year period. Payments are made to all 32 competing schools and the tournament ends with a wonderful rendition of "one shining moment."

NCGCA works with digital media outlets to sell the performances and generates additional billions of dollars by doing so. Schools sell CDs and apparel with the names and pictures of glee club members. A video game company produces a game, annually, of the best glee teams both for the previous year as well as all time. The game sells millions of copies, generating even more revenue.

The successful student participates in some of the best glee clubs in the nation. They compete three times a week, from November through April, performing in tournaments around the country. The conference, in which the school is a member, originally was grouped, geographically, amongst similar academic institutions. Unfortunately, the conference continues to expand as larger television broadcast contracts are offered, and now includes schools in all five different time zones including perennial champion the University of Hawaii.

Alas, the students who generate this considerable financial stream can only watch as all proceeds are distributed to the NCGCA, conferences, and individual schools. The NCGCA reminds them that they are "amateurs" every time they ask for their share of the proceeds. Furthermore, they now realize that the NLI they signed indicates that not only will they receive no money now; they have granted away those rights in perpetuity.

In a stunning move, a former tenor who led his Californian team to the Golden Glee Club Championship years prior, sues the NCGCA when he realizes when playing a video game that his likeness and image is being used without his express approval. The lawsuit is supported by a former insider, someone who ushered in the sponsorship of coaches and teams by signing them to apparel deals. This ensured that the top glee club participants wore sported particular logos during nationally televised events thereby spawning a new industry of glee club sweat suits.

Finally, after three years, a few star performers have the audacity to decide it's time to benefit financially from their talents by going pro. Unfortunately, the rules governing when they can contact agents, the PGCL, and its union -- developed by the NCGCA -- restrict their ability to make that transition. When they go to their school for help at the end of their college glee club careers, they realize that their coaches are looking towards the new recruiting class.

Finally, the day they have dreamt of for years has arrived. They are excited about the PGCL draft and have high hopes of being a lottery pick. They have visions of Broadway or Hollywood in which they can better market themselves for endorsements. What? The small market of Des Moines just made their selection.....