Local college athletics don’t expect unions

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Don’t expect to see Colorado College hockey joining the trend toward unions in athletics.

Don’t expect to see Colorado College hockey joining the trend toward unions in athletics.

Sorry, local collegiate athletes. Your check is not in the mail.

In light of last month’s groundbreaking ruling regarding Northwestern University football team’s right to form a union, collegiate athletic departments across the country are asking, “What if?” At a local level, however, higher learning administrators aren’t concerned their coffers will be compromised anytime soon.

Peter Sung Ohr, director of the National Labor Relations Board in Chicago, determined Northwestern football players were actually employees. His ruling was based on the number of hours per week student athletes contributed to their “profession” and the control that coaching staff had over athletes’ lives, translating to an employee-employer relationship. Players allegedly committed more than 40 hours a week to practice and preparation — an NCAA violation — and coaching staff controlled their travel itineraries, social media postings and housing and employment options.

Ohr’s ruling, which only applies to private schools and was immediately appealed by the university, perhaps was primarily swayed by the $235 million in revenue the athletes generated for the university over nine seasons.

Locally, there are student athletes attending Colorado College, UCCS and the Air Force Academy. The structure of each institution means the regulations that govern them differ, whether Mountain Lion, Tiger or Falcon.

Tigers for hire?

Because it’s a private institution, Colorado College has the only student athletes who could be affected by the NLRB’s decision. There’s no denying CC’s biggest athletics draw is its Division I men’s hockey team and that it generates revenue for the college and the community. In addition to tickets and merchandise purchased locally, visiting teams, their fans and family members spend money on lodging, entertainment and dining when in town.

Despite the local economic impact, CC Director of Athletics Ken Ralph said he does not foresee Northwestern’s situation translating here.

“I’d contend that student athletes are not employees,” Ralph said. “If they are following NCAA rules, they are not employees.”

Ralph emphasized “student,” explaining the vast majority of CC’s college athletes graduate and many with full-ride scholarships. Too often, he said, colleges are used as farm systems for professional sports at the expense of academics.

“Take college basketball, where kids showcase their ability for the NBA for one or two years, but they’re not getting a degree. They’re mercenaries, really.”

Kevin Rask, a professor of economics at Colorado College, said one common misconception regarding college sports is that they are a cash cow for their respective institutions. According to a USA Today survey of 2012 collegiate sports revenues, only seven of 225 public university athletic programs were self-sustaining, let alone profitable. When it comes to collegiate sports revenues, football is king, and public schools dwarf private schools. Forbes ranked the University of Texas football program tops with an income of $109 million in 2013, compared to private school Notre Dame’s $43 million the same year.

Rask said schools with high-profile football programs are the only universities where student athletes can contend their talents equate to profits.

“Football can provide that revenue,” Rask said. “And a lot of that revenue comes from television deals.”

Rask said that in order to pay college athletes, the money has to come from somewhere, including cutting into coaches’ salaries, scholastic scholarships and financial aid.

“As a private school, one solution could be endowments to help sustain some of this, but at public schools, you’re talking about cutting into state budgets.”

One way around paying players through public funds or endowments might be allowing student athletes to earn income through endorsements, a loophole also strictly prohibited by current NCAA rules, and a solution rife with recruiting issues of its own.

Lion’s share

According to UCCS Athletic Director Steve Kirkham, Division II athletes like those at UCCS don’t receive full scholarships, while Division I has 85 full-rides to spread around each year in football alone.

In addition, public school union disputes would fall under the jurisdiction of their state departments of labor.

“I don’t think athletes are employees,” Kirkham said. “But this [ruling] has opened two conversations we’ve needed to have for a while. One is it seems lots of college presidents are ostriches with their heads in the sand … if athletes are practicing 50 hours a week. It burns out coaches and it’s too much to demand from the kids.

“Secondly, people need to look at what we’re paying coaches,” Kirkham added. “Smaller schools can’t keep up. Look at [Colorado State University’s] athletic budget compared to [the University of Northern Colorado.] Then compare CSU’s budget to [the University of Colorado at Boulder’s] athletic budget.”

For the record, the differences in athletic expenses at those three schools in 2012 were indeed striking: UNC, $11,743,604; CSU, $25,389,541; CU Boulder, $54,257,247.

Kirkham said he expects Northwestern’s appeal will eventually make its way to the Supreme Court with a ruling favoring the university.

Duty first

Cadet athletes would also be exempt as the Air Force Academy is a non-scholarship school where every cadet — athlete or not — receives a free education and a monthly stipend.

“The academy is very different because cadet athletes, like Army and Navy, are already considered to be in the military when they are here,” Troy Garnhart, associate athletic director at the Air Force Academy, said.

“They are paid a salary here starting as freshmen and going through their senior year.”

“As a private school, one solution could be endowments to help sustain some of this, but at public schools, you’re talking about cutting into state budgets.”
– Kevin Rask, Colorado College

Cadets, including athletes, first and foremost answer to the Uniform Code of Military Justice, and the NCAA knows that, Garnhart said.

When cadets commit to the academy, they are legally bound at the beginning of their junior year. Freshmen and sophomores are free to leave without any military service or financial penalty, Garnhart said, adding every cadet must participate in athletics or club sports at some level, but few, if any, intend to make athletics their career.

“If you thought you were good enough to play professional sports after your senior year, you still have to complete five years of military commitment,” Garnhart said. “Those who want to make a professional career in any sport, this is not the place to go.”

A precedent?

While the Northwestern decision has certainly received its fair share of attention over the past month, the case is not pioneering when it comes to amateur athletes versus the powers that be. The Ohr decision may have garnered added attention because “union” carries emotional and political connotations. But amateur athletes have battled universities and the NCAA in the past.

Enter Ed O’Bannon.

In 2009, the former UCLA basketball player filed a suit against the NCAA for using his likeness and not giving him proper compensation.

In order to participate in an NCAA sport, players must sign a contract surrendering any profits amassed through the use of their image. Collegiate-themed basketball and football video games created by developer Electronic Arts, in conjunction with the NCAA and the Collegiate Licensing Company, have created numerous products over the years using hundreds, if not thousands of amateur athlete likenesses, including athletes no longer competing for their schools or at the professional level.

O’Bannon invoked the Sherman Antitrust Act, claiming the NCAA’s control over athletes’ likenesses is akin to artificial price fixing. O’Bannon, who has been joined by other athletes in what is now a class action suit, argued that if he had not been required to sign a contract with the NCAA relinquishing his likeness, he would have been able to shop his image to other interested parties, and therefore his image’s value was falsely set at $0.

This case, which is currently awaiting a trial to begin in June, could set precedent as to how collegiate athletes are compensated for their time and talent for years to come.