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Union push could forever change college sports

By Barry Horn The Dallas Morning News (MCT) • Dec 17, 2015 at 6:15 PM

Imagine a Final Four at which the hot topic of conversation is the salaries of the college players on the court. Who’s the most overpaid? Underpaid?

Come Saturday’s semifinals you could be sure the media would compare how much Wisconsin junior guard Traevon Jackson earned to play on the national stage in sold-out AT&T Stadium with how much his father, Jim, earned during the dismal days he played for the underwhelming Mavericks at Reunion Arena.

As for Julius Randle, a freshman sensation at Kentucky, the debate might center on if more money awaited as a Wildcats sophomore or an NBA rookie.

What if commercials during college television broadcasts featured freshmen, sophomores, juniors and seniors compensated for their appearances?

Student-athletes in college’s giant revenue producing sports — football and men’s basketball — may be transformed into $tudent-athletes over the kicking and screaming protests of the NCAA.

It could happen in the not-so-distant future. Former Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel may have been born a decade too soon.

A giant step in that direction came last week when a regional National Labor Relations Board in Chicago ruled Northwestern University football players should be recognized as employees with the right to form a union and bargain collectively with the school.

It was a blow for Northwestern, universities around the country and the NCAA, which historically has preferred participants who play intercollegiate sports to remain amateurs to the core.

But inevitably in a golden age of billion-dollar television deals and million-dollar coaching contracts, not to mention high-dollar shoe and equipment deals, athletes are seeking more say in their own lives.

For now, Northwestern says it will appeal the decision up the NLRB chain. In the end, however, the case probably will wind up in the federal courts. There it would join a pair of lawsuits filed on opposite ends of the country designed to see that college athletes are compensated for their sweat beyond their scholarships.


Pay for play is not the immediate intention of the movement to unionize college athletes, says Ramogi Huma, a leader in the athletes’ rights movement.

But it probably could become a byproduct of collective bargaining, Huma acknowledged.

Huma is advising the Northwestern players in their NLRB case and is consulting one of the federal lawsuits. It was filed in New Jersey last month by an attorney who has successfully battled the NFL, NBA, NHL and Major League Baseball.

Meanwhile in California, a 41/2- year-old lawsuit seeking to end the NCAA’s restrictions that prevent athletes from cashing in on their name, likeness and image is finally set to go to trial in June.

What Huma’s College Athletes Players Association is focused on, its founder said, are issues such as guaranteed lifetime coverage for sports-related medical expenses; improved procedures for reducing head injuries; the right to pursue commercial sponsorships; stipends to cover expenses while in school, and the right to move from school to school without being forced to sit out a season.

“We are looking for the players to be given a seat at the table to discuss physical and financial issues of their participation,” Huma, a former linebacker at UCLA, said in a telephone conversation from his home base in Riverside, Calif.

“We are not re-inventing the wheel,” he said. “All professional sports have unions. … whatever schools and college players want to do would be negotiated at the bargaining table.”

The NCAA, conferences and schools have long maintained that their’s are not professional sports. Rather, the scholarships that include tuition, room and board are payment enough for their “student-athletes.”

Still sensing a change in the environment, the NCAA, which traditionally has exhibited glacier-like movement, recently liberalized its rules to expand payments.

NCAA president Mark Emmert cited the rules changes last week when the subject of pay for play was elevated for discussion on an NBC Sunday morning Meet the Press.

“(Athletes) can get a suit and tie from their athletics department,” Emmert said. “They can get a flight home for an emergency. So it’s a very different world than it was five years ago.”

Emmert added he has pushed for a $2,000-per-player stipend to help further defray athletes’ “miscellaneous expenses.” Critics, including Huma, contend that isn’t nearly enough in an era in which basketball and football players help bring in millions of dollars to their schools and conferences.

No matter. The NCAA’s member universities voted down the attempt at largesse.


Huma has been pressing for college athletes’ rights since 2001. He said he and his original organization, The National College Players Association, remained in the wilderness until relatively recently when a confluence of events, propelled by increased media interest, moved the issue center stage.

Stimulating the seismic shift, he said, are ever-increasing billion-dollar football and basketball television contracts; focus on multi-million dollar contracts for coaches who aren’t barred from skipping off to a new deal at a new school; concussion awareness, and academic scandals that make “student-athlete” an oxymoron.

In 2010, CBS, with new partner Turner Sports, tore up their old deal with the NCAA and agreed to a revised 14-year contract to televise the men’s NCAA Tournament that is worth $11 billion. That’s a 41 percent increase in revenue over the old deal.

In 2012, ESPN agreed to pay $5.64 billion over 12 years to create the College Football Playoff, which will introduce a football Final Four later this year.

The NCAA’s Emmert said the men’s basketball tournament money supports “everything that goes on in college sport” at the Division I, II and III levels.

“So the vast majority of the revenue flows into the NCAA, goes right out to the universities either directly or indirectly through the support of these championships,” said Emmert, who according to NCAA tax returns had a compensation package of $1.7 million in 2011, his first year leading the organization. That was up 46 percent from his predecessor’s.

“The money’s not going to colleges and they’re sitting on it. It’s supporting 450,000 kids. It’s a big, big amount of money.”

Huma said his College Athletes Players Association believes there is enough money for revenue-producing football and basketball athletes to get whatever they can negotiate.

Just take the Final Four coaches coming to North Texas, who are earning millions.

Kentucky coach John Calipari is in the midst of a five-year, $37.5 million deal. That’s $5.5 million a season. A USA Today database that included coaches who took their team to the 2013 NCAA Tournament had Florida’s Billy Donovan at $3.7 million and Bo Ryan of Wisconsin earning $2.4 million. Connecticut’s Kevin Ollie, a second-year coach who like Calipari did not lead his team to last year’s tournament, is in the midst of a five-year, $7 million deal.

What if those coaches, and coaches at other Division I schools, made less money and the savings benefited their players? What if schools spent less on administrators’ salaries and facilities?

The National College Players Association would at least like to bring the issue to the bargaining table.

“If the players had their collective bargaining, this year’s Final Four would not be changed one bit,” Huma said. “The players would be out there playing their hearts out, and the fans would be cheering just as loud.

“Only difference would be players would be more a part of the decision-making process,” he said. “The NCAA has been living a dream. That can’t continue.”

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