Questions abound after Northwestern union ruling

April 1, 2014
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Karen Hjerpe
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Bill Dukett

Not since Sally Field held up her sign in the shop where she worked in the movie “Norma Rae” has the threat of creating a union caused such a stir in a large number of individuals.

The victory last week by student-athlete football players at Northwestern University to form a union sent shockwaves through college athletics in general and the NCAA in particular.

The National Labor Relations Board ruled the Northwestern players were entitled to form the union because they are employees of the university. The question now is what will happen next. If successful fighting off appeals, the Northwestern players will dramatically change the way college athletics operates and could spark a massive reorganization of how the NCAA conducts business.

It also has sparked conversations.

“It will be a long time before anything is going to happen,” said Bill Dukett, athletic director at Washington & Jefferson College, an NCAA Division III school that will not immediately feel the effects of unionization of college players.

“It’s an interesting ruling.”

And it’s sparked some interesting talking points, such as:

• Are employees permitted to receive athletic scholarships? If not, then schools might be forced to either change those rules or rescind scholarships to unionized players. In it’s place might be a pay-for-play system. But it’s unclear how that would work, considering some scholarships at private universities cover costs of $50,000 or more.

“That’s a real hazy point,” said Karen Hjerpe, athletic director at California University, an NCAA Division II state school.

• Will unionization spread to other schools and other divisions? The overriding thought is that would certainly happen if the Northwestern players have their status stand on appeal.

“If they win, then you have to look at every sport and every division,” said Mark Richard, athletic director at Gannon University, a Division II private university that participates with Cal in the PSAC. “It would be mind-boggling.”

• Having employees rather than student-athletes participate in sports, universities would be open to numerous workman compensation claims from injuries sustained in games and practice.

• The Northwestern athletes say their main focus is on improved athletic attention, not disrupting the scholarship system or demanding pay-for-play options. But it’s hard not to see those issues being pursued if the players are successful through the appeals process.

“We believe that participation in athletic events is part of the overall educational experience for those students, not a separate activity,” Alan K. Cubbage, Northwestern’s vice president for university relations, said in a released statement, noting that many of the issues being debated are within the control of the NCAA, not Northwestern. “Unionization and collective bargaining are not the appropriate methods to address the concerns raised by student-athletes.”

• Taxes. Currently, only room and board are subject to taxation, Richard said. If the players receive payment, that would mean those wages would be taxable. So, if a player receives $50,000 to compete in a sport, he or she would fall under the taxation rules of federal government.

“They are angling toward a salary being paid, and that would be taxable,” Richard said.

• After battling for so many years for equal footing, proponents of Title IX are probably not going to allow women’s sports to get overlooked in this discussion.

• Division III schools could see an influx of student-athletes if scholarships are replaced with pay. Many schools would not be able to afford to field teams and entire programs could become too costly where the players are paid a wage rather than given a scholarship. Many schools might find participating on the Division III level more enticing.

“Once it proliferates,” Dukett said, “then every (Division I or II) school could (unionize). In our case (at the NCAA Division III level), if kids don’t want to play, they don’t play.”

• The NCAA could stand by its bylaws and declare any athlete who accepts pay for play would become ineligible in their respective sport. The organization does not appear ready to recognize students as employees.

“While not a party to the proceeding, the NCAA is disappointed that the NLRB Region 13 determined the Northwestern football team may vote to be considered university employees. We strongly disagree with the notion that student-athletes are employees,” said Donald Remy, chief legal officer for the NCAA. “Over the last three years, our member colleges and universities have worked to re-evaluate the current rules. While improvements need to be made, we do not need to completely throw away a system that has helped literally millions of students over the past decade alone attend college.”

Joe Tuscano has been with the Observer-Reporter since 1980. He has covered all sports for the newspaper, including the Steelers, Pirates, Pitt football, local college football and wrestling. He has worked for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the Jeannette News-Dispatch and North Hills Record. He graduated from Duquesne University in 1980.

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