The vast majority of Americans – three out of every four according to one hasty survey – feel college athletes should not be able to form or join a labor union. This revelation came within 24 hours after a regional director of the National Labor Relations Board in Chicago submitted a 24-page opinion on Wednesday that included the belief that student-athletes are “employees” of the universities they attend.
The nationwide reaction to Peter Sung Orr’s belief that football players at Northwestern University should be able to form a union ranged from “laughable” to “absurd.” Yet the NLRB finding served as further proof the ruling body of college athletics, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), is under siege from almost every direction and changes in the way college sports are conducted are inevitable.
Dabo Swinney, the head football coach at Clemson, may have had the best reaction when he told the Charleston (SC) Post & Courier, "We've got enough entitlement in this country as it is." He scowled, "To say these guys get nothing totally devalues an education. It just blows my mind people don't even want to quantify an education.”
He explained it well. "I didn't get into coaching to make money - coaches weren't making any money when I got into coaching. It's what I wanted to do with my life, and I was able to do it because of my education. That's what changed my life. That's what changes everybody's life."
Swinney, raised in the suburbs of Birmingham and earning a scholarship at the University of Alabama after he was a walk-on, is in favor of paying college athletes in some fashion. “I think you have to modernize scholarships because they haven’t changed. It costs more to go to a movie, costs more to buy gas, costs more to wash your clothes than it did when I was the school,” the 44-year-old coach said.
“There needs to be an adjustment but, as far as professionalizing college athletics, college athletics would go away.”
Swinney used one of his most-recent players as an example. Tajh Boyd just finished a stellar career as a Tiger quarterback and will be among those in the NFL draft this spring. “But he could quit football (totally) right now and (employers) would be lined up from here to California to hire the guy. You know why? Because (Tajh) took advantage of his opportunity and his platform and his marketing and the brand. These guys are educated, trained and they’ve got great expertise and resources."
“There are so many things that go into the college experience and college education” said Swinney, scoffing at the notion athletes are “used” or “exploited” as the critics now claim.
To be fair, Swinney signed an eight-year contract worth over $27 million at the end of last year’s season but the coach said his education (he has an MBA degree) had nothing to do with money.
ESPN ANALYST JAY BILAS – “It’s another brick taken out of the castle the NCAA has constructed. It’s not going to stand forever and we’re getting closer and closer to it tumbling.”
SEC COMMISSIONER MIKE SLIVE – “The SEC does not believe that full-time students participating in intercollegiate athletics are employees of the universities they attend."
NORTHWESTERN QUARTERBACK CAIN COLTER (who instigated the claim) -- “This is a great decision for college players. This is a win for both the players and the football program. As I stated many times, we love Northwestern University. We did not seek a union because of mistreatment. It is important that players have a seat at the table when it comes to issues that affect their well-being. Football and basketball players generate billions of dollars per year. Minimizing the risk of concussions should be a priority, and shielding current and former players from sports-related medical bills should be guaranteed. Players will gain a number of important protections once this union is in place.’’
NCAA STATEMENT -- “We strongly disagree with the notion that student-athletes are employees. We frequently hear from student-athletes, across all sports, that they participate to enhance their overall college experience and for the love of their sport, not to be paid.”
PAC-12 COMMISSIONER LARRY SCOTT -- “Although we have not yet read the ruling, we are aware that the National Labor Relations Board’s regional director in Chicago has ruled that student-athletes at Northwestern University are entitled to have the opportunity to form a labor union. We disagree with the ruling and believe that health and economic issues raised by student-athletes are best handled as part of the collegiate model, between universities and their students.”
SENATOR LAMAR ALEXANDER -- “Imagine a university’s basketball players striking before a Sweet Sixteen game demanding shorter practices, bigger dorm rooms, better food, and no classes before 11 a.m. This is an absurd decision that will destroy intercollegiate athletics as we know it.” (Alexander is the former president of the University of Tennessee)
NFL PLAYERS ASSOCIATION DIRECTOR DeMAURICE SMITH -- "A terrific decision by the NLRB today for Kain Colter, Ramogi Huma and the brave Northwestern athletes. Kain Colter and Ramogi Huma are this generation's leaders and history will look back on them in the same light as Curt Flood and John Mackey. The only question now is who will have the courage to match and join you. I hope the athletes playing in the Sweet 16 take note.
THE MONEY: Big-time college programs take in more than $100 million a year from basketball and football, and most of the major conferences have television contracts and many have networks. The NCAA has a 14-year, $10.8 billion contract for the basketball tournament, while ESPN and the major conferences signed a 12-year deal for a new college football playoff package that is reportedly worth $7.2 billion.