Writer’s Block: Unanswered questions about unions for college athletes

March 26, 2014 may become a historic date for college sports. It is still too early to tell.

Eric Hagen

Eric Hagen

It was on this day that the Chicago district of the National Labor Relations Board gave Northwestern University football players the right to unionize.

Northwestern is appealing this decision to the board. The result of the April 25 vote by current Northwestern football players is sealed until a decision is made on this appeal.

Even if Northwestern loses its appeal and the players decide to unionize, it is still too early to know whether some will remember March 26, 2014 as the day amateur sports died or if it will just be an interesting footnote.

The National Labor Relations Board only has jurisdiction over private universities so a school like Duke would be affected, but not a public institution like the University of Minnesota.

Even if the proverbial ball is rolling toward unions for all student athletes, players in each school would still have to decide whether to unionize and the decision may not be simple. There are many unanswered questions.

Only the Northwestern football players voted April 25. What about the basketball teams, track and field and the multitude of other teams? Would athletes from some schools band together or will all teams vote individually?

Athletes are reimbursed for their services to the university through scholarships that are not taxed. Any stipend should be taxed.

Should the star quarterback get the same money as the offensive lineman who is protecting his blind-side? NFL teams do not agree with this logic, but this is not professional sports we are talking about.

The large universities may make a lot of money, but what about the small universities?

A USA Today chart shows that the University of Texas’ athletics department collected $163 million in revenue and spent $138 million with no subsidy reported. Texas came in third for revenue collected. The University of Michigan came in third place with $140 million in reported revenue, $115 million in expenses and $259,000 in subsidy.

I’m assuming the subsidy is the university’s subsidy of the athletics program, but unfortunately this chart did not specify this. However, it should be noted that only seven athletics departments reported $0 in subsidies. Besides Texas, the other programs were Ohio State, LSU, Penn State, Oklahoma, Nebraska and Purdue.

On the other end of the spectrum, there were 39 small universities that reported a subsidy over 80 percent. I only recognize several names because of its men’s basketball teams making the NCAA Tournament.

The gap between the haves and have-nots would grow larger. Schools may be forced to cut teams and focus on the revenue generators even more than they already do. They would have to stay balanced between the men’s and women’s sports to meet Title IX rules.

College athletes should get a seat at the NCAA’s table to discuss health coverage when an injury lingers beyond their playing days. I could write a whole column on this, so I will just voice one more opinion.

College athletes should be able to market themselves.

Quarterback Johnny Manziel should have been able to legally earn money from the autographs, the #2 Texas A&M jerseys sold and his likeness being used in a video game. The same would apply to any other athlete who has the ability to earn a buck.

ESPN college basketball analyst and Duke alum Jay Bilas went to ShopNCAAsports.com and typed in Manziel in the search box and was directed to jerseys. He did the same for other big name players and found the same thing.

They jersey doesn’t have the athlete’s name on the back, but come on NCAA. We’re not idiots.

Eric Hagen can be reached at eric.hagen@ecm-inc.com

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