University of Akron and Kent State officials and coaches are not sure about the repercussions of a ruling that recognized the Northwestern University football team as a union.
But they are sure that the NCAA’s model of college sports will be permanently changed if the decision from the Chicago office of the National Labor Relations Board withstands an appeal from Northwestern.
The NLRB decided this week that Wildcats football players are indeed employees whose work 20 to 50 hours per week generates revenue. For that reason, they are entitled to union recognition and the right to collectively bargain, according to the decision.
Some of the issues mentioned in the petition include improved medical coverage, tests for concussions, four-year scholarships (most athletic scholarships are one-year renewable) and possible payment.
“It’s going to change the entire model,” University of Akron men’s basketball coach Keith Dambrot said of the ruling if it’s allowed to stand. “It’s going to be interesting.”
It could represent a complicated issue.
“This is something we’re all going to have to take a look at and work with our legal counsel to address these issues as they arise because this is certainly something we need to watch very closely,” UA Director of Athletics Tom Wistrcill said.
No one would hedge any bets as to what could happen.
“I’m anxious to see what this will lead to because I really don’t know what all it will get and what all it will take away,” UA football coach Terry Bowden said.
Therein lies the problem: College sports will enter an undiscovered territory. Dambrot likens it to the fight for free agency in Major League Baseball and expects a protracted legal battle over the decision.
A voice at the table
Kent State Deputy Athletic Director Devin Crosby said he understands both sides of the argument — that schools consider playing a sport is voluntary and the athletes view their scholarships as a term of employment.
“Here’s where I could see ourselves going at the end of the day,” he said. “I believe the student athletes really want representation. They want a voice at the table when policies are being made, evaluated and updated. I don’t know if that will satisfy them, but I think that will help because, from what I’m reading, a lot of the conversation involves health concerns and injuries.”
There is little public support for paying college athletes because many hold to the belief that a college education provides payment enough. A Washington Post/ABC poll released Monday found that 64 percent of people were against paying college athletes.
Thirty-three percent supported compensation. The same poll showed that respondents were split at 47 percent over the right of college athletes to form unions. There is a distinct difference in support across racial and age demographics.
For those athletes who take advantage of it, a free education may be a true benefit. But it goes deeper than that.
What about revenue that the NCAA generates from using a popular player’s likeness and jerseys that sell because that Ohio State Buckeye or Florida Gator becomes a star? The NCAA still faces a lawsuit to settle whether it owes former players compensation for allowing the use of player likenesses in video games. Its partner, EA Sports, which marketed popular games based on college athletes, settled with former players last year.
Going beyond money, what about players’ health as it specifically relates to concussions? There is no baseline testing for concussions required by the NCAA. The organization faces no fewer than five lawsuits related to that fact, according to various reports.
Given what’s happened with the NFL attempting to reach a settlement with former players regarding concussion issues, the NCAA might be more proactive, especially in light of a television contract that pays about $470 million per year for 12 years beginning this year for rights to air the recently created three-game college football playoff system.
That is an important issue in college athletics and ultimately one that the Northwestern players want addressed, but the entire situation will remain convoluted and murky for assorted reasons.
Right now, only private universities will be affected by the ruling, provided it withstands appeal. If it stands, can it shift the balance of power in college sports with those private universities getting more standout athletes?
Dambrot said that it can, but he’s also a realist.
“The kids are going to go where they can get the most,” he said. “But my guess is before it’s over, it will be everybody.”
That brings other questions related to scholarships and taxes and other labor-related issues.
“I know the basic rights people get as an employee,” Bowden said, “but there are also certain responsibilities and obligations. I’d just have to say, like a lot of other people, I’m going to be anxiously watching to see where this continues to go.”
Bowden expressed a preference that college sports, in general, remain committed to amateurism.
“I’m still a believer that they’re not employees, they’re students,” Wistrcill said. “We have all types of students on campus and they get all different types of scholarships.”
Crosby brought up another possible sticking point.
“Here’s a topic in this conversation we’re not hearing that much: if the student-athletes do unionize, there could be an impact on gender equity,” Crosby said. “I understand that some people will argue that gender equity or Title IX, is about education, not compensation. But I do think something that we still, at some point in time, will have to evaluate is medical bills. That has something to do with education.
“Is it fair to give football players and men’s basketball players certain medical treatment and not the men’s soccer players? What about facilities? What about teams in Chicago, where it snows so much, who want an indoor facility to play their football games? What do you tell the men’s soccer team playing outside in the snow? So, I feel that even though people might try to dispute Title IX because of access to education, I don’t think you can dismiss Title IX and gender equity quite yet.”
Beacon Journal sports writer Stephanie Storm contributed to this report. George M. Thomas can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the Zips blog at https://ohio.com/zips. Follow him on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/GeorgeThomasABJ and on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/sports.abj.