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Unionizing college athletes is next step down tricky path

You knew this day was coming.

You knew that some smart kids would get together with some smart adults and make the argument that college athletes are more than just athletes.

Simply put: They're employees in one of the biggest and most successful businesses in America.

But, these people claim, they have none of the rights employees in any company would have. We're talking health benefits, future medical treatment and a slice of a multibillion-dollar pie.

Well, it happened this week. Football players at Northwestern University announced plans to form the first labor union for college athletes.

What does it all mean? Will Jimbo Fisher's Seminoles or Billy Donovan's Gators soon be paying dues and carrying picket signs alongside the United Steelworkers? Not likely. The hurdles of becoming unionized are high and many.

But don't dismiss this announcement. This isn't a lark. Changes are coming.

What's unclear is just how significant the changes will be and whether or not they're a good thing.

My gut tells me this is the first step of a slippery slope that will end in the ultimate ruin of college sports as we know it.

Let's start with this: It's going to be difficult, if not impossible, for the players to convince the National Labor Relations Board that they are employees. The NCAA will argue that players are "student-athletes" and that their scholarships are not, technically, salaries. Furthermore, the NCAA will claim that the players voluntarily play sports. Therefore, they can't strike or enter into a collective bargaining agreement.

This argument is debatable and that debate will take place in state and federal courts for months, maybe even years.

This also is important to note: Northwestern players claim this isn't about money. Well, it isn't solely about money.

"Money is far from priority No. 1 on our list of goals," said former Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter, who is the main spokesman in this fight. "The health of the players is No. 1. Right now the NCAA does not require or guarantee that any university or institution covers any sports-related medical expenses. Student-athletes should never have to worry about if their sports-related medical bills are taken care of."

Injured playing college sports? Yes, those athletes should be taken care of and most are.

As far as long-term issues, players would have a difficult time successfully arguing their cases. How could one prove chronic health issues, particularly concussion-related problems, didn't originate in youth football or high school?

But just because it will be difficult for athletes to prove they are employees and have the right to form a union doesn't mean we are in for the status quo. When this all ends — maybe a year from now, maybe 10 years from now — the NCAA might no longer exist. Maybe it will change certain rules. Universities could form their own governing body that will treat players far more generously.

Look, there is no question that big-time college football and basketball programs practically print money.

You can go into the campus bookstore at Texas A&M and buy a No. 2 jersey similar to the one worn by quarterback Johnny Manziel and Manziel doesn't see a dime from it. You can buy a video game with a player that looks exactly like Oklahoma State guard Marcus Smart, right down to his No. 33, and Smart doesn't get a cent.

But let's stop this ludicrous notion that athletes are playing for nothing. When did a college education become nothing?

Ask someone who has been paying off a student loan from 20 years ago if getting free tuition (as well as books, food and a place to sleep) doesn't have monetary value. Ask the same question of parents who annually write checks to State U for $30,000.

"We're very grateful for the education that we get, and we put in hard work to obtain the degree at the end of the day," Colter said. "There are essential rights and benefits that we're missing out on. … You have to think down the line. These are our lives, and we want to make sure that we're protected."

Of course we want to see these athletes protected. But here's the fear: If unionized, the natural next step is athletes will want to be paid. Not just a few bucks here and there to buy a pizza or take a date to the movies, but real money. Serious money.

Allow athletes to be unionized and start working for salaries and how long before they start making noise about free enterprise? How long before we have Southern Cal and Alabama bidding millions for a hotshot quarterback from western Pennsylvania? The competitive balance will be thrown out of whack. Not every school makes big money on sports. For every Duke there's a Duquesne. For every Northwestern there's a Northeastern.

Will small programs survive? What about nonrevenue sports? How would players be paid? Would a second-string volleyball player get the same life benefits as a star running back? What about Title IX?

These are valid questions. So is the conversation of athletes being treated like employees. It's time to have it.

Hopefully, the announcement by Northwestern's players is just the start of a long and careful conversation. We have to get this right or college sports will change forever. And not for the better.

Unionizing college athletes is next step down tricky path 01/29/14 [Last modified: Wednesday, January 29, 2014 8:56pm]
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