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Unions for College Student-Athletes a Question of Fairness

by on February 06, 2014 6:20 AM

Last week, Northwestern football player Kain Colter and the majority of his teammates petitioned the National Labor Relations Board to form a union.

There are complex legal arguments that we can't get into now, but it is an opening salvo by student-athletes seeking a voice in collegiate athletics.

As money in college sports skyrockets, signs indicate an emerging consensus is growing for student-athletes to get paid, or at least have a say in how the NCAA governs intercollegiate athletics.

The money being made by college football and basketball players is now into the billions. Everyone — the NCAA, the conferences, the universities and the coaches have contracts protecting their interests.

Well almost everyone.

Student-athletes sign a paper accepting conditions to get a one-year scholarship — including signing away rights to their likeness in their school's uniform to market as the school wishes. In return they get a scholarship but few protections and no voice.

The guys at Northwestern are right to question the current college athletics power structure. The Ed O'Bannon lawsuit versus the NCAA is one factor. Concern about concussions in college football is another factor. They show us the student-athletes shouldering the physical risks while schools market them for the school's coffers.

Every major sport in this country has unionized. Given the huge popularity of big-time college sports the time may be right to face the reality. This is not about getting paid or stipends. It is about fairness.

After two decades in college athletics here are things that I'd want on the table if I represented student-athletes:

  • 4 year scholarship guarantees
  • The ability to transfer without penalty when a school fires the coach. (This will slow universities' quick knee-jerk firing of coaches — which impacts the student-athletes the most.)
  • Health care protection — money placed in medical accounts to pay for current and future health problems related to their participation in college athletics
  • Institute a standardized concussion protocol nationally
  • Team doctors who are independent of the coaching staff (representing the health of the student-athletes first).
  • Academic support staffs independent of the athletic department
  • Revenue sharing on video game and licensing agreements -- money put into accounts payable to student-athletes upon graduation—either in a retirement account or a graduation bonus
  • No more expansion of the playing season and restrictions on the number of week-night games during the school year

These ideas don't demolish the few strands of amateurism that still exist. They're basic protections in a world where NCAA executives, conference commissioners and coaches make millions while players get a scholarship that can be taken away. A scholarship has tremendous value but student-athletes deserve protections as they play physically demanding sports.

The NCAA and the schools will argue that the money isn't there.

The money is there, it is just a matter of how schools choose to allocate it. Now it pays coaches and administrators. In 2013 the 12 Big Ten schools paid their head football coaches and their coaching staffs compensation packages nearing $60 million.

If Big Ten schools redirected 10% of that money to football student-athletes there would be a pool of nearly $500,000 per school. That $6 million is enough to allocate $5,882 for all 1,020 Big Ten football student-athletes on scholarship. Multiply that by four years and each student-athlete could graduate with over $23,000 in a retirement fund, or as a down payment on a home.

With revenue sharing from licensing agreements for video games, sponsors and corporate partners the money grows even more. Those companies pay for their logos to appear in arenas and stadiums and to be associated with the game being played by the student-athletes. How many times did we see the Swoosh on Florida State Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston's jersey this year?

Given the reality of sports today maybe unionizing should start before college. Think I'm crazy? Consider the numbers and internet traffic on recruiting and on Football's National Letter of Intent Day. A lot of money is being made on high school athletes too.

The Nation's #1 Recruit — according to recruiting site Rivals is defensive lineman Da'Shawn Hand. Since his sophomore high school highlight tape was first posted, Rivals.com and their network of sites have generated 46 solo Da'Shawn Hand videos. By the start of this week, those videos had generated over 715,000 views.

Cable sports networks televise games of the top high school players. They stage national high school all-star games and televise practices. Yesterday cable sports networks all produced all-day programming dedicated to covering national signing day.

Do high school student-athletes get any of the money that the use of their names and likenesses generate? If they get hurt where is there protection?

High school student-athletes are built into mythical superstars before they even set foot on their chosen college campus. Then two or three years later if they don't live up to their advance billing (and most do not) we are surprised when they get into trouble or fall from grace.

The college system values its labor but does not give student-athletes a voice to protect themselves. They are effective money makers and fund raisers but are not valued appropriately by the system that they serve.

The time has come to open the dialogue. The idea of unionized student-athletes scares some, but basic fairness should require at least some discussion of how the system can better protect the student-athletes it claims to support.



State College native and Penn State graduate Jay Paterno is a father, husband and political volunteer. He’s a frequent guest lecturer on campus and at Penn State events and was the longtime quarterbacks coach for the Nittany Lions. His column appears every other Thursday. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/JayPaterno
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