SBD/March 28, 2014/Colleges

ADs, Lawyers, Players, Media React To NLRB's Union Ruling, Speculate On Long-Term Impact

Colter said athletes deserve to have a say in how college sports should be regulated
Former Northwestern Univ. QB Kain Colter on Thursday indicated that the National Labor Relations Board's decision to recognize the school's scholarship football players as employees and allow them to form a union "was an expected victory -- but also represents just the first step in what he knows will be a lengthy process," according to Tim Reynolds of the AP. Colter said the decision "ensures that players have a voice and whatever route this goes and whatever structure comes from college sports, we have input." Colter: "We're out there sacrificing so much. We're a big part of what college sports is today and the revenue that's generated off of it. We deserve to have a say in that. We deserve a seat at the table." Colter noted he "isn't worried" about NU appealling the ruling. He said, "You saw how strong of a ruling it was and that we won every single claim. It's going to be something that's really hard to overturn." Reynolds noted Colter stressed he "enjoyed his time at Northwestern" and "raves about Wildcats coach Pat Fitzgerald, calling him the best in college football." Colter said, "You can have the best employer in the world and you still deserve basic protections and basic rights. That's what this is all about. ... It wasn't a complaint. It wasn't us filing this out of abuse or mistreatment or anything like that. This is what it is" (AP, 3/27). 

DAWN OF A NEW DAY: USA TODAY's Dan Wolken notes Wednesday's ruling "has left many in college athletics ... scrambling for a response." The decision was "a tricky topic to broach Thursday at NCAA tournament sites." The unionization push is "more complicated" than the issue of paying college athletes because it "alters the nature of the relationship between a school and college athletes, something potentially far more disruptive to the current system than simply changing the definition of so-called amateurism" (USA TODAY, 3/28). Univ. of Utah AD Chris Hill on Thursday said that he "supports consideration of an increased stipend for student-athletes and even potentially allowing them to pursue endorsement deals, but that on the whole he believes the current NCAA student-athlete model is 'pretty successful.'" Hill said of himself and other ADs, "Most all of us really don’t fully understand what this ruling means, fully understand what the players are asking for" (SALT LAKE TRIBUNE, 3/28). Kent State Univ. Deputy AD Devin Crosby said, "Here’s where I could see ourselves going at the end of the day. 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" (AKRON BEACON JOURNAL, 3/28).

ATHLETES "BEING HEARD": Iowa State F Georges Niang said the ruling is about athletes' voices "being heard." In N.Y., Juliet Macur notes for the atheletes unionizing is about being "more than just a powerless commodity." Niang "broke his foot in a game last week and won’t play for the Cyclones on Friday, but he said one positive effect of the ruling might be that players could be covered by workers’ compensation if they were hurt while playing for the university." He said, “The school needs to do something about it because you are sacrificing your time to make their school win a championship, but they’re not going to take care of you. That could change.” But Macur notes Niang was "reluctant to talk too much about the ruling" and, in his reasoning, he "provided the perfect example of a university’s control over its players." Niang: "I feel like I sort of have to watch my tongue when I talk about this sort of subject. I don’t want to say anything to make anybody too upset because I still have two more years to be in college and I don’t want to ruin my relationship with anybody" (N.Y. TIMES, 3/28).

I'M THE TAXMAN: Experts said that NU football players "could one day have to pay federal and state taxes on athletic scholarships" following Wednesday's ruling, but it is "too soon to make them worry." Michigan State law professor Amy McCormick said, "It’s unlikely anything would happen immediately." She said that scholarships under the IRS code are "exempt from being taxed unless they are compensation for services required as condition for receiving the aid." However, she noted that the IRS "has not considered athletic scholarships as income" (CHICAGO TRIBUNE, 3/28). O'Connor Davies Exempt Organization Tax & Advisory Services Group Partner Garrett Higgins said, "The fact that the players were not considered employees in the past is essentially the reason why their scholarship or parts of it weren't taxed before. The IRS may be able to make the argument that the scholarship is really payment for services, and therefore compensation, and is now taxable to the athlete." ESPN.com's Darren Rovell noted if NU players "did form a union and they were taxed, it's not clear exactly what they would be paying tax on." If, for example, their entire scholarship was "deemed taxable, the athletes would be paying at least $15,000 in federal tax alone on the $61,000-a-year scholarship." One major conference AD "speculated that the value the players received from the training table, travel and even coaching could be taxed" (ESPN.com, 3/27).

BE CAREFUL WHAT YOU WISH FOR: In Atlanta, Jeff Schultz writes forming a union is actually "not something the athletes should want to pursue." If they are "recognized as employees and form a union, that will lead to collective bargaining." Schultz: "Would athletes from Alabama and Cal Poly Pomona go to the bargaining table with the same objectives? Employees get paid. Employees also can get fired. On the spot. ... Employees get taxed. Are you ready for that, Mr. Wildcat?" (ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION, 3/28). In Buffalo, Bucky Gleason writes the minute athletes "accept a penny from a college for athletics, the rules change." Gleason: "You march to their orders. You study when they tell you to study. You eat what they want you to eat. You train the way they want you to train. In exchange, they give you an education. If that works for you, fine, but understand the deal before making the commitment. ... So, kids, be careful what you wish for" (BUFFALO NEWS, 3/28). But ESPN's J.A. Adande said unionizing is a "logical step" in college athletics. Adande: "For everyone saying this is the downfall of college athletics, they haven't asked for money yet. They're just looking for some basic protections" ("Around The Horn," ESPN, 3/27). 

END OF THE WORLD AS WE KNOW IT? In Miami, Greg Cote wrote there are "problems with the ruling" and asked, "Is it really good for college sports to have players negotiating how much they'd like to practice?" Mostly the ruling "is wrong because it assumes players contribute substantially to a school's football revenue," which is "a faulty premise." The ruling "alludes to the 'enormous commercial value' of players' work," but "that's wrong." Players "come and go, and very few actually impact a university's success or brand" (MIAMIHERALD.com, 3/27). In Detroit, Daniel Howes writes there are "all sorts of reasons the NLRB’s call here is a bad one, the chief being this: a system derided for making big money off college kids would morph into a system that uses college kids to make a little less money for universities as it opens a new revenue stream for the sagging dues rolls of organized labor" (DETROIT NEWS, 3/28). Weinberg, Wheeler, Hudgins, Gunn & Dial Partner Steve Mooney said, "This ruling’s probably the worst thing that could have happened to the NCAA in a long time. Not just because of the decision, but it really has stirred up a hornet’s nest" (ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION, 3/28).

YOUR MOVE, NCAA:  In New Jersey, Tara Sullivan writes the NCAA "has no choice now but to listen" and if it fails to, "major college sports as we know it will never be the same." This "isn’t a simple equation of paying college players to play; it’s about finally recognizing how much more they give than they get." The NCAA "can no longer play dumb, no longer stay silent and hope these issues go away while their own coffers spill over" (Bergen RECORD, 3/28). A N.Y. TIMES editorial states the college-sports establishment has "brought this trouble on itself by not moving to address players’ legitimate grievances." The College Athletes Players Association "isn’t seeking a specific share of football revenue or even salaries, but better medical protections for concussions and other injuries, guaranteed scholarships that cover the full cost of attending college and the establishment of a trust fund that players can use to finish their schooling after their NCAA eligibility expires." Those are "modest, reasonable goals," and if universities "don’t want to have to deal with unions, they should stop fighting their players and work with them to improve conditions" (N.Y. TIMES, 3/28). In Baton Rouge, Scott Rabalais writes even if the NU case "isn’t exactly the model for future change, change is coming" in the form of "stipends, collective bargaining, perhaps eventually even more boycotts." Rabalais: "Could we even see a picket line of players around a major college football stadium or basketball arena?" (Baton Rouge ADVOCATE, 3/28).
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