Boling: Student-athletes have always deserved a share of revenues

dave.boling@thenewstribune.comMarch 28, 2014 

My dad died when I was 13, and the one thing of his that came down to me was a belt with a silver dollar in the buckle.

The coin was from the 1800s, and I had no idea of its value. A true keepsake, though.

But I got so hungry one night in college that I pried the coin from the belt and walked to White Castle to buy as many sliders as I could with a silver dollar from the 19th century.

Seriously. How starving and broke do you have to be to do that? How did I come to such a state?

I was a college football player.

Yes, my school rewarded me with tuition, room and board. Yes, I was privileged to have the life-changing opportunity.

But when you’re starving at night and broke, and after burning many thousands of calories practicing and training that day, you can get desperate.

Typical students with limited financial wherewithal might get work-study or part-time jobs. Scholarship athletes cannot.

It was that lamentable night at White Castle I first thought of when hearing the news this week of the National Labor Relations Board ruling that the football players at Northwestern University were, indeed, employees of the private school and thus entitled to form a union.

The ruling could prove historic and bring dramatic changes to the way college sports are conducted.

Those initiating the action say they’re interested in some basic protections and rights, such as academic support and medical coverage in case of long-term injuries.

But that’s only tangential to the more fundamental issue of paying college athletes. If unions of players may legally form, then the collective bargaining for stipends surely will follow.

The issue is complex, with fair arguments both ways. The players already receive significant value in the form of scholarships and opportunities.

As it stands, the revenues generated by football and men’s basketball are used in the very worthwhile support of so many of the athletic opportunities for athletes in the nonprofit sports.

Beyond that, studies show that only a couple dozen athletic departments in the country are self-supporting as it is.

Still, college athletics reportedly generate $16 billion in annual revenue. And it’s hard to argue the point that players are employees in a huge commercial enterprise.

An NLRB report cited typical workweeks of 50-60 hours during training camp and 40-50 hours a week during the football season. “Not only is this more hours than many undisputed full-time employees work at their jobs,” the report said, “it is also many more hours than the players spend on their studies.”

Peter S. Ohr of the NLRB added that the requirements and restrictions coaches and athletic departments impose on players is “the kind of control that an employer has over an employee, not the kind of control a school has over a student.”

NCAA chief legal counsel Donald Remy disagreed with the ruling. “We frequently hear from student-athletes, across all sports, that they participate to enhance their overall college experience and for the love of their sport, not to be paid.”

Nobody doubts their dedication to the game or their teams or their universities. But it’s still a kind of servitude that benefits universities to an enormous degree.

Where would stipend money come from? A modest ticket surcharge? A 10 percent rebate off the bloated salaries of coaches whose wealth is acquired through the efforts of their athletes? Pass it on to those buying broadcast rights?

I promise that athletic departments, out of necessity, suddenly could get very clever when faced with the prospect of sharing profits.

Networks don’t want to pay higher rights fees? Well, fine, what are you going to broadcast on Saturday afternoon when fans are expecting to see Washington play Oregon, but the players aren’t cooperating?

There’s some leverage.

Universities have to hate this. Fans probably do, too. But it was never pure or fair in the old days, as we’d like to think. For one, it didn’t used to be a multibillion-dollar business.

Hopefully the rulings of the past few days won’t eventually lead to strikes or holdouts and lockouts.

But they should force the NCAA and universities to finally give the players a seat at the table when money matters are being discussed.

It’s past time that athletes have earned the right to be treated as “partners” rather than commodities.

Dave Boling: 253-597-8440 @DaveBoling

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