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Sports fan: Unionize college sports?

Apr 11, 2014


By Jim Walker
Of the News-Register


Will a "bandwagon effect" rumble its way across the country and draw in other private (and perhaps public) universities whose football players feel they need more benefits and protections than they're now receiving, such as wider insurance coverage?

Or is the decision announced by the National Labor Relations Board in March a one-time-only phenomenon that will be discussed in college boardrooms all over the country and then forgotten.

Right now, no one is quite sure about the potential impact of Northwestern's football players' successful bid to unionize. Additional cost to schools? Tax consequences? Title IX concerns? What if the women's volleyball team wants to unionize? Or the basketball team? Are athletes really "employees" of this university, or any university, for that matter? If they are, how about the average student who represents his or her college in clubs and associations and other activities on campus?

What, in fact, would happen if all of the Wildcats' teams wanted to unionize? Currently, many athletes attending the school are on scholarship, which means their tuition, books and other major school expenses are paid for.

And, since Title IX requires schools (high schools included) to give male and female athletes equal treatment, some fear that the school could be forced to come up against the Supreme Court in negotiations.

While the decision to unionize could be reversed, during the interim, many in higher education are worried about the many ramifications of unionization. At many schools, Oregon State and Oregon included, major sports' athletes are already treated well, eating high quality team meals together, enjoying all the benefits that come with participation in sports' programs at the NCAA Division I level.

In any event, Northwestern is squeezing into unchartered territory, which even College Athlete Players Association President Ramogi Huma said leaves a number of unanswered questions. Huma and CAPA co-founder Kain Colter traveled to Washington to meet with members of Congress to discuss the decision and other issues regarding unionizing college athletic teams.

Huma probably created a few concerns when he said that although many of CAPA's proposed changes would not go head-to-head with current NCAA rules, some of the organization's goals would require rule changes. However, Huma emphasized that players would not ask the university for any benefits that would lead to violations.

For one, although I belonged to an association (okay, okay, both the Oregon Education Association and National Education Association are labor unions), I don't agree with the decision to unionize football players at any university, let alone Northwestern. They're already paid in large part. For example, an athletic scholarship at a major college has been estimated to be worth from $20,000 annually to $120,000.

The $120,000 figure includes the benefits of coaching, academic counseling, strength and conditioning consulting, media relations assistance, medical insurance and treatment, free game tickets and future earnings power, At Butler University, a private college in Indianapolis, Indiana, the benefits derived annually from an athletic scholarship are projected at $42,278, which includes tuition, board, room and fees.

So, what, in addition to wider insurance coverage, more clout at the bargaining table and a few other perks, are Northwestern football players going to derive from the recent decision to unionize and be considered university employees? Are they seeking, in the long run, in addition to basic scholarships, salaries and corporate benefits (remember, these are 18-22 year-old adults who are receiving a "free" education), which could result in large budget cuts in other line items, or entire programs, or do they merely want some sort of protection from career-ending athletic injuries (concussions, serious joint injuries)?

Or, do they intend, as some of the opponents of unionization feel, to grab the brass ring and earn more and more benefits while they're still in school?

This is a hot-potato item to which all college sports fans should stay tuned.

If you have an idea for a column or feature story or a comment, please contact me by email at jwalker@newsregister.com or by phone at 503-687-1274.

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