Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

Sports column

March 29, 2014

Column: Unionize college sports? Think again

— Now hold on just a minute.

Some athletes, perhaps soon no longer to be called “student-athletes,” at Northwestern University have gotten a green light to try to unionize from the National Labor Relations Board in Chicago. Suddenly everyone is drawing up sides.

In general, I’m not against people being compensated for their talent and hard work, but there are some ramifications to going down this road that governing bodies, judges and student “players associations” should think about.

Currently, athletes good enough to win scholarships (or otherwise to get on athletic rosters at colleges) have certain specific benefits.

The vast majority have tutors and advisors to help with registering for courses and making progress toward their degree. Some big-time university departments of athletics have counselors and psychologists on their staff to help their clients exclusively.

The students get to spend time playing a sport they obviously love so much that they are willing — note the word willing — to perfect their talent through devoting many hours of their time. If they get really good, they can turn pro someday and get paid a lot.

Some become famous, which can be a dangerous thing, but most young people will say is a pretty good gig.

If a basketball point guard twists an ankle, he or she is likely to be able to be directed to therapy and medical advice that the average college kid slipping on an icy sidewalk would not know how to get.

Now, as attorneys would put it, come the disclaimers. The schools in which these gifted athletes enroll want to be able to brag about the quality of their sports programs. They want their alumni to be happy about the athletic successes of their alma mater.

There are recruiting advantages to having positive mentions of the institution’s name out there in the public eye.

It is also undeniable that somebody — other than the student-athlete — is making money off of college athletics. A fraction of the big NCAA Division I universities make millions of dollars in revenue. The coaches of their “revenue-producing” sports pocket some of those millions.

I believe you would be quite impressed if you toured the athletics facilities at places like UCLA and Alabama (sorry, Brian).

Is this exploitation of the lowly student-athlete? Good question. Yes, they are working. Yes, due to their “revenue-producing” teams, they are generating cash flow.

What would a ruling that these students are employees mean?

Believe it or not, there are some smart people working in the world of college administration. It is possible that they would come up with some countermeasures if they had to deal with the potential employment and unionization issues.

Big-time college athletics already operate somewhat independently of the institutions in which they co-exist with academic pursuits. That has been brought into focus more in recent years when the athletic offices at some schools unilaterally declined to continue to give back some of their revenue to the “parent” institution’s operating fund.

It is just possible that athletic programs would be more completely de-coupled from their colleges or universities and go about hiring folks who can play ball for a few years whether they can read or not.

Would that be exploitation? Yep. Is it going on now? Probably, in limited cases, but it would be much worse in a post-employee world.

Would the athlete be happier not to have to spend time studying when he or she could be working out in the gym? In some cases, yep, but is that in the long-term best interest of the athlete, of the pro team that may be in his or her future, and of society in general?

Given the ability of a sampling of pro athletes to carry on a meaningful conversation, to manage their finances and to respond thoughtfully to the challenges of our interactive world, I would make the case that these young people need more immersion in higher education to equip themselves for life, and not less.

Would the student-athletes toiling in non-revenue-producing sports such as golf, tennis or track be hurt by a system in which college-level athletes are rewarded based on the money they bring in to “the company”? Yep.

The NCAA has botched its job of governing athletics, crushing people with penalties for ticky-tack infractions, yet looking the other way while universities make money from marketing their students’ names and likenesses.

There ought to be a place for students at the table when money made off of them is discussed. I don’t believe a union is the desirable way to accomplish that.

Smart people need to get their brains in gear before we all create a bigger mess, through omission or commission.

*****

Tom Bone is a Daily Telegraph sports writer and cartoonist. Contact him at tbone @ bdtonline.com.

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