The Times West Virginian

March 30, 2014

Ruling about college athletes forming union can have huge impact

By Misty Poe
Times West Virginian

— Student-athlete or employee?

How should players at your favorite college or university be classified?

There’s sure to be plenty of discussion — and litigation — over this point after a federal agency ruled last Wednesday that football players at Northwestern University can create the nation’s first union of college athletes.

Regional director of the National Labor Relations Board Peter Sung Ohr said in a 24-page decision that the players “fall squarely” within the broad definition of employee.

Under U.S. law, The Associated Press reported, an employee is regarded as someone who, among other things, receives compensation for a service and is under the strict, direct control of managers. In the case of the Northwestern players, coaches are the managers and scholarships are a form of compensation, Ohr concluded.

“The record makes clear that the employer’s scholarship players are identified and recruited in the first instance because of their football prowess and not because of their academic achievement in high school,” Ohr wrote. He also noted that among the evidence presented by Northwestern, “no examples were provided of scholarship players being permitted to miss entire practices and/or games to attend their studies.”

The goals of the players at Northwestern include guaranteeing coverage of sports-related medical expenses for current and former players, reducing head injuries and potentially letting players pursue commercial sponsorships.

The Northwestern case deals with private schools. The federal labor agency does not have jurisdiction over public universities.

It is easy to see, though, that the idea could spread throughout the country.

Could we one day see what has happened in professional sports, strikes and lockouts?

Is it possible that scholarship athletes, who devote a tremendous amount of hours virtually rear-round if they are to succeed, get in position to receive more than a paid-for college education?

“We frequently hear from student-athletes, across all sports, that they participate to enhance their overall college experience and for the love of their sport, not to be paid,” the NCAA said in a statement.

That may be true, but it’s no secret about how major college athletics has become a huge business. Coaching salaries of millions of dollars annually are now routine in the major sports. Football and men’s basketball lead the way, and they generally must generate enough revenue and interest to support entire athletic departments. There is $18 billion just in television rights for the NCAA basketball tournament and bowl games.

It’s the players’ performance that generates that money.

Is that performance worth more than the value of a scholarship?

More cases are on the way.

One, filed by former UCLA basketball star Ed O’Bannon, is scheduled for trial June 9 in California. O’Bannon, who led his team to the national championship in 1995, sued after seeing his likeness without his permission in a video game licensed by the NCAA.

Former West Virginia University running back Shawne Alston has filed a class-action lawsuit against the NCAA and the five major conference saying they violated antitrust laws by agreeing to cap the value of an athletic scholarship at less than the actual cost of attending school.

Change, in this atmosphere, is sure to come to college athletics.

“While improvements need to be made, we do not need to completely throw away a system that has helped literally millions of students over the past decade alone attend college,” the NCAA said in a statement.

Finding a way to be fair to athletes while continuing to provide a wide range of sports will be a tremendous challenge that will likely take years to accomplish after being ignored much too long.