By Giancarlo Santoro, Sports Writer
A potentially monumental shift in the way collegiate athletes are, or aren’t, compensated is set to be decided sooner than you may think. Opinions are more divided than gamblers in Las Vegas predicting who would win the 2014 NCAA Championship between the University of Connecticut and the University of Florida (UConn won 60-54).
But before you read on, ask yourself: Do you think amateur athletes should be paid?
The Northwestern University football team members will submit their votes to the National Labor Relations Board in Chicago April 25 to change their status from students to “employees,” allowing them to unionize and receive compensation.
What the vote also means is that college athletes would be receiving money through both the union and through any athletic scholarships the university already provides. It is important to note this particular ruling would only affect players at private universities, which Northwestern is categorized as.
Peter Ohr, the regional director for the NLRB, has already ruled that Northwestern’s scholarship football players were “employees,” meaning all that’s left is for the players to decide. According to The Huffington Post, reports from Northwestern confirm that Wildcat players have already conducted a secret ballot vote on forming a union to pursue collective bargaining with the school.
The vote is unlikely to affect all varsity athletics, as big money sports like football and basketball are what the NLRB is focusing on.
Because this issue has the power to change college athletics in a way nobody has ever seen before, there are a plethora of facts and figures that can be brought up on both sides of the argument. No prize for guessing what the main issue is: money.
To be more precise, the disparity in how money is distributed among coaches, the university and the players.
University of Connecticut point guard Shabazz Napier, a senior who was just crowned 2014 NCAA National Champion, highlighted the problem from his point of view when talking to reporters in March.
“Every time you see a jersey sold, you look at it and feel like you want something in return,” Napier said. “I don’t think athletes should be getting hundreds of thousands of dollars, but there are hungry nights where I go to bed starving.”
There wasn’t a hint of exaggeration in his voice or his demeanor. But what he said next was really telling.
“If something’s gonna change, it’s gonna change. But at the end of the day, we’ve been doing this for so long.”
This is from a player that, along with an extremely talented Husky team, came into the National Tournament as a No. 7 seed, beat the seemingly unbeatable No. 1 seed and then won college basketball’s greatest prize. It was the Huskies fourth title (1999, 2004, 2011, 2014) and Napier’s second.
If UConn makes millions off of Husky players in jersey sales and their own players can barely afford to eat, then perhaps athletes should benefit in some way from their hard work, which brings in revenue to the university.
Where the Northwestern ruling has the potential to disturb more than a few, that it would only affect private institutions rather than public seemed to make the possible change slightly less drastic.
However, after Napier’s comments, Connecticut State Rep. Matthew Lesser and other state lawmakers are considering allowing UConn student athletes to unionize. Connecticut law, not the NLRB, governs whether or not employees can unionize at the public university level.
Speaking in an interview with CNN, Lesser said, “He [Napier] says he’s going to bed hungry at a time when millions of dollars are being made off of him. It’s obscene. This isn’t a Connecticut problem. This is an NCAA problem, and I want to make sure we’re putting pressure on them to treat athletes well.”
While it is obvious that lawmakers and student-athletes believe in the idea of some sort of compensation, some head coaches and commissioners disagree.
Northwestern’s own coach, Pat Fitzgerald, and Larry Scott, the commissioner of the Pac-12, seem to think unionizing is not in the solution.
“I believe it’s in their best interests to vote no,” Fitzgerald said in an interview with the Associated Press. “I just do not believe we need a third-party between our players and our coaches, staff and administrators. Whatever they need, we will get them.”
Scott held a similar viewpoint in an opinion piece he wrote for USA Today, where he stated that the ruling was a terrible idea. He even went so far as to say that it would destroy college sports.
“There is absolutely no question that turning students into employees would take us in precisely the opposite direction that we need to go,” Scott wrote.
Easy for him to say. Scott took home $3,000,000 in 2011-12, while the Pac-12′s TV contract is worth $3 billion over 12 years. Fitzgerald was reported to be earning $2,221,153.
No matter what the outcome, the losing side is sure to be upset. Chances are an official ruling will be dragged out for months, or even years, due to appeals, but it’s obvious that something needs to change.
Athletic scholarships have been in the United States since 1973, and more than 40 years of only providing scholarships won’t be erased by one university football team’s vote. Still, Northwestern and UConn look as if they are going to attempt to bring an unprecedented change to college athletics. ◼︎