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April 17, 2014

Collegiate athletes fight for right to unionize

By Brendan Samsa

Photo illustration courtesy of Brendan Samsa

Every year the NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association) brings in upwards of $750 million through TV and marketing rights fees, championship revenue and other services. For several years now a section of journalists, former coaches and students have been calling for sharing a part of this revenue with student–athletes. They have argued that it would only be fair, feeling that in today’s larger than ever NCAA athletics that they are athletes before students.

This has been a question that has been debated for decades now, and as TV broadcast revenues are at an all time high, so is this controversial debate.

The issue was brought to national discussions when last month the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) of Chicago ruled on a petition filed on behalf of students of Northwestern University--which argued that student-athletes are employees and hence have the right to unionize and collectively bargain with the university. This ruling sent a shock wave through college sports as a governing entity had finally ruled in favor of the players on this hot button issue.

This ruling by the NLRB has opened the door for other legislators to follow suit, or not.

Right here in our home state of Ohio, a state which houses the largest athletics department in the country (Ohio State), state legislators have taken their first step to eliminate any notion that college athletes are employees.

On April 7, a Republican-backed amendment was introduced to the state’s budget review. This amendment states that collegiate athletes are not employees and shall not be viewed as such.

The proposed amendment has a long way to go before it becomes a law. But should the decisions be left to the courts, Ohio could become the battleground for what would be the largest decision in the history of college athletics.

Cleveland State University President Ronald Berkman commented on the NLRB’s ruling at the City Club of Cleveland, on March 28, during his speech to the club.

“Student athletes have a very different educational life than our traditional students,” said Berkman. “We do need to recognize that they bear an extra burden. I think we are a long way away from seeing picket lines of lineman from Ohio State at the Horseshoe, but it’s an interesting decision.”

In a phone interview with Cleveland.com after the introduction of the proposed amendment, Ohio State University athletics director Gene Smith said that he agrees with the amendment.

“I do believe that student-athletes are not employees,” said Smith. “I think we have to find more ways to serve student-athletes, and I think what Kain Colter and others are trying to do is a good thing, but I think there are better ways to do it. I just don’t think unions are the right way to go.”

According to Forbes.com, just from football alone Ohio State annually generates over $48 million in revenue, and just under $150 million from each of its sports combined. Where Akron University athletics combined revenue is just over $25 million, and Cleveland State is slightly under $11 million of revenue from each of its collective sports.

This begs the question, how would smaller schools afford compensating student-athletes any further should the courts rule in favor of the players? Larger schools like Ohio State have the financial wiggle room for such changes. But would schools like Cleveland State be able to afford putting its athletes on the payroll?

Many people truly believe that college athletes should be compensated monetarily for their contribution to the nearly $800 million a year organization that is the NCAA. But going off of Smiths comments, maybe there are better ways to do it than contracts, unions, and agents for 18 and 19 year-olds who are just one or two years removed from their adolescence.