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Debate to pay college athletes intensifies with ruling

Posted March 27, 2014
Updated March 28, 2014

— The debate whether to pay college athletes intensified Wednesday after a National Labor Relations Board regional director ruled that Northwestern football players qualify as university employees, and thus, can unionize.

While a college athlete union isn’t expected to happen anytime soon, such could allow student-athlete issues to be addressed much quicker.

“Imagine a Big Ten championship in football and both teams strike and there is no game,” said former N.C. State University basketball standout Julius Hodge. “That kind of display can cause change right away.”

Athletes are employees

The petition requesting Northwestern football players to unionize was filed by the College Athletes Players Association, an organization of current and former college athletes seeking protections that include:

- Guaranteed coverage for sports-related medical expenses for current and former athletes
- Minimizing the risk of sports-related traumatic brain injuries
- Improving graduation rates
- Obtaining due process rights for college athletes.

In his ruling Wednesday, NLRB Regional Director Peter Sung Ohr wrote that the football players, because they receive scholarships, fall within NLRB’s “broad definition of ‘employee’ when one considers the common law definition of ‘employee.’”

Ohr’s decision included extensive detail into the life of a Northwestern football player, from practice and conditioning time commitments to restrictions on outside activities and social media. It also detailed how much the university brings in from football - $235 million between 2003 and 2012.

“Players on scholarship are initially sought out, recruited and ultimately granted scholarships because of their athletic prowess on the football field,” Ohr wrote. “Thus, it is clear that the scholarships the players receive is compensation for the athletic services they perform for the employer throughout the calendar year, but especially during the regular season and postseason. That the scholarships are a transfer of economic value is evident from the fact that the employer pays for the players’ tuition, fees, room, board, and books for up to five years.”

Ohr also noted that the “tender” players are required to sign – detailing the conditions of their scholarship – serves as an employment contract.

Northwestern plans to appeal Ohr’s ruling.

“While we respect the NLRB process and the regional director’s opinion, we disagree with it,” said Alan Cubbage, vice-president for university relations, in a statement. “Northwestern believes strongly that our student-athletes are not employees, but students. Unionization and collective bargaining are not the appropriate methods to address the concerns raised by student-athletes.”

Ongoing debate

Wednesday’s decision is the latest in the nationwide discussion regarding college athlete compensation.

In California, an anti-trust lawsuit trial is scheduled for June over the use of college athletes’ names and likenesses on products, such as video games, without compensation.

Opponents argue college athletes should not be paid because they receive:

- Access to training and facilities that pro and amateur athletes pay thousands for
- Publicity that can enhance their draft status
- A free (or mostly paid for) education that they may otherwise be unable to afford

“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,” wrote Donald Remy, NCAA chief legal officer, in a statement. “We want student-athletes – 99 percent of whom will never make it to the professional leagues – focused on what matters most – finding success in the classroom, on the field and in life.”

Proponents, on the other hand, say college athletes:

- Should prosper off the billions made through merchandising and television network deals
- Spend so much time practicing and playing that they have little time for a job
- Are limited by NCAA rules regarding employment

“[The NCAA] has ignored players’ plea for concussion reform, measures to increase graduation rates, and sports-related health coverage,” said a statement on the College Athletes Players Association’s website. “College athletes need a players association because NCAA sports has clearly demonstrated that it will never voluntarily provide players with basic protections regardless of how many billions of dollars the players generate.”

A full time job

Hodge, the former N.C. State player, believes a union could help student athletes after their college playing days are over.

“It is not even a part time job, it is a full time job being a student-athlete,” he said. “A lot of basketball and football players suffer injuries, and after their playing days, insurance is up and they’re on their own.”

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Chancellor Carol Folt believes the overall college experience is more important for a student-athlete than receiving a paycheck.

"Most universities feel that what they are offering is a very deep and rich experience and is not the same as a work experience that would be a part of that union discussion,” she said. “I think there's a lot of thinking that needs to go for that."

For any college athlete union to work, it would require participation from big name players, who often do not stay in college for long, said Caulton Tudor, WRAL sports contributor.

"Those guys have got to really buy into the union concept, and really the star basketball players are not so concerned about the union concept,” he said.


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  • Objective Scientist Mar 28, 2014

    OK... the notion of paying athletes, athletes who themselves are paying for nothing. An athlete at a major NCAA D-1 university on full scholarship has "no worries" about the basic expenses of being a college "student". He/she does NOT have to pay for tuition, fees, housing, food, books, school supplies, medical care, etc., etc. All of the basics expenses are PAID FOR THEM! But... all colleges athletes "need" to occasionally have a meal somewhere other than "training table", they need to be able to purchase personal "incidentals", they want to be able to go on a "date" and pay, they need to be able to afford transportation home for holidays, etc. (although athletes often are not free to leave on breaks and holidays)... all that and more. I have no problem with, actually would support, an athletic scholarship including some money for the kind of things I just listed. Are the 5-star football/basketball players wanting all that plus a handsome salary? I can't support that!!!

  • katzlover Mar 28, 2014

    then make them pay for their "EDUCATION"...

  • redwolfone Mar 28, 2014

    Scrap the whole thing and get back to providing an education at a reasonable price, which the universities are not doing NOW! These sports teams are big business operating in a non profit environment.

  • tabdjb Mar 28, 2014

    "They should be paid like employees, given good health benefits and medical care and allowed to attend school as a benefit of their employment as an athlete."
    They are given good health benefits and medical care and not only are they allowed to attend school but its free for them through the scholarships. Easy solution, pay them for "playing", but take away the scholarships and they can use the money to pay for their own education. I bet the graduation rate would go up then. Let them have to deal with financial aid and loans like the other students. But also remember, this only pertains to D1 schools who give scholarships. What about the other the other divisions that that have teams but no scholarships?

  • Objective Scientist Mar 28, 2014

    View quoted thread

    ANTI-MAKO II - well said! You and I are on the same page on this, even though I am a "UNC guy"! My only additional comment I have at this time regards the use of the word "Brand". I know that has become a "jargon" work in the field of marketing... including "sports marketing". I have friends who are "sports marketers" and they use the term - "brand" - all the time. I do not think of "UNC" as a "brand", when I hear "UNC" I do not think of it as a "brand", when I see the interlocking NC or the Old Well or the Bell Tower I do not think of that as a "brand". When I "cheer" for UNC I do not consider - at all - that I am cheering for the "brand" - when I see/hear/read or whatever... all of those things I think of MY UNIVERSITY! I understand the use of "brand" in marketing even a University sports program... but for me the name "Bush's" or "Del Monte" on a can of beans or sliced peaches as a "brand name"... but not UNC, my University.

  • caseofthefoo Mar 28, 2014

    It's the end of the world as we know it.

  • anti-Hans Mar 28, 2014

    continued from previous post

    If we elminate scholarships completely I think would be horrible. There are economically challenged athletes/students that the scholarship is the ticket to a better life through education, and no one wants to deny this opportunity. I am all for even making some academic exceptions IF the kid actually WANTS to go to class and learn - again the opportunity to better their life forever.

    Paying them? NO WAY!

  • anti-Hans Mar 28, 2014

    Here is one more thing to think about - people support their schools, the brand, not the players,

    Some have commented as a player is slam dunking or scoring the game winning TD that none of us care about his GPA. Actually some of us do but that is another story.

    Some have commented all we care about is at the end of the day we have scored more points than Rival U and we have a W in the win clumn.

    This is my point - level the playing field and make all be student athletes. We will still cheer for our schools. Sure, the level of athleticism may go down, but we will still root for our team. At State, we have had a noticeable drop off from Rivers, Wilson, and Glennon, but we Pack fans are still out there cheering our team. We root for the brand, the school, not the name on the back of the jersey.

    continued next post

  • Ken D. Mar 28, 2014

    View quoted thread

    You can't be serious. Is there nothing you whackos can't blame this president for?

  • Objective Scientist Mar 28, 2014

    View quoted thread

    Come on!!! sweetsea2!!! Do you REALLY believe that OBAMA - the POTUS - made that ruling and/or had any direct, or even indirect, involvement in it??? And... to be very VERY CLEAR - I am NOT a Democrat. But... neither am I a Republican. I have been a very VERY INDEPENDENT independent for decades! It seems some folks on here - like you - will blame EVERYTHING on Obama! Do you really think that - with all that is going on in the USA and in the world - that the POTUS even had time to think about this issue, much less be involved in a ruling on it??? Com 'on!!!