College Athletes Wanting Their Share of the Wealth (and a lot of name dropping of Cael Sanderson).

Recently (as of yesterday) the National Labor Relations Board ruled in favor of Northwestern University football players forming a union. This is something that will excite advocates of athletes being paid what their worth and anger those who feel it will drastically change the landscape of college athletics and benefit only a small percentage (football and basketball players) while doing nothing or potentially harming the mass majority of non-revenue drawing athletic competitions (archery, swimming, wrestling, etc.) This ruling has to be viewed at in a realistic manner though. Right now it accomplishes very little. This is going to be a long process and while I’m an advocate of players being paid I am not sure why they feel the only way to accomplish this is to empower something as exploitive and corruptible as a union. If presidents were exploiting them, at least they weren’t extorting money from them for protection. In the real world that’s called Racketeering, but when Unions do it it’s called “workers right’s” but that’s an article unto itself. To avoid ranting about unions abuse of power I’m going to explore what this ruling means in the short-term and the possible effects on college athletes, athletic departments and competition.

If this ruling holds and it spreads to public schools, Universities will now be forced to deal with medical issues properly and give proper coverage for injuries and recovery. That will probably happen before all the money and payment issues are worked out. This is something that’s not discussed as often but is an important component. In fact, outgoing NU QB and public face of the movement has said himself the number one issue is getting proper medical coverage. This is a no brainer, but it was already set in motion before this ruling. The NCAA is distantly behind the NFL  in concussion testing and treatment. This could get very expensive for Universities though. Quality training and medical staffs are not cheap and while places like USC or Notre Dame can probably afford world class training staffs the Fresno and Boise State’s of the NCAA are left to public funding and small endowments to spread throughout their academics, sports, and benefits to students. Which brings us to monetary consideration which would only pile the cost even more on universities.

This is a problem that effects a small percentage of college athletes. Most student-athletes are not future professional stars (or even bench warmers) and aren’t “exploited” by the Universities and EA Sports and Marketing companies etc… They are given a chance to compete and play the sport they love while learning a skill or obtaining a degree they can use once they’re in the professional world not playing sports for a living (or non-living). They get to do something that most of American kids can’t afford to do because they’re athletically gifted and don’t end up tens of thousands of dollars in debt to do it. These are the scholarship athletes. There are non-schalorship athletes but  I’ve explained they’re not exactly being exploited for money in most cases. This is really a football and basketball problem. Two sports which see mass TV coverage and are marketed by companies far and wide without offering compensation to the players. Cael Sanderson was 159-0 in wrestling and arguably the most dominant college athlete in history. You don’t know who Cael Sanderson is? You wouldn’t be alone. Video Games didn’t use his likeness, TV stations didn’t make huge amounts of money off of his wrestling matches through TV deals and marketing, The Big 12 (He went to Iowa State) doesn’t get billions of dollars off of college wrestling TV deals. There’s no BCS to pay Iowa State millions just for making it to the postseason in wrestling.  He competed and dominated his sport, was not able to capitalize on it monetarily, earned his degree and now has a gold medal and has coached Penn State to four straight National Titles. That’s four individual national titles, a gold medal, and four team titles as a coach. He just wins. A lot. Would it be so hard for the NCAA to let guys like this market their success while in school? We’ll get to that later, but beyond that question he’s not exactly the type of college athlete that is most effected when it comes to improper use of his likeness.

This whole movement started to gain traction when former UCLA Basketball superstar Ed O’Bannon saw his likeness on a college video game –after he was already graduated–and was not compensated for it properly by EA Sports. It then snowballed into a national conversation about college athletes likeness rights and being compensated for the use of their likeness or getting money for their autographs or apparel with their number on it and tv contracts and so on. Ohio State had stars selling memorabilia and Johnny Manziel was busted for selling his autograph. This is something, that to me, is separate from what unionizing athletes as “employees” (that distinction is important) accomplishes apart from merely hiring an organization to negotiate settlements/compensation for student-athletes or allowing them to cash-in on their fame but I’ll address that later in the article.

So on a broad scale this only affects the athletes who are actually generating revenue through their work and likeness but this ruling narrows the scope even further. This ruling allows private universities to unionize (if the appeals process continues to rule in their favor) but does not include public universities who would have to appeal to their state labor boards. If this ruling is upheld and private university football players unionize and come to a collective bargaining agreement with their respective universities then these private universities could offer something places like Alabama and UCLA could not. Steve Sarkisian, at least until public universities reach an agreement with their respective states (which could take years), could go to top recruits and offer payment in return for play. USC has a lot of money/endowment much like most private universities. The balance of competition could be skewed for a short time. Places like Notre Dame, Miami and USC already have location, history, tradition and now would have a monetary advantage. All of a sudden USC is getting all the 5-star recruits in Los Angeles instead of Oregon and UCLA because they can pay them a monthly salary plus scholarship, not to mention USC’s current ability to get recruits from all over the nation because of their prominence. Brian Kelly could walk right into Mobile, Alabama and simply ask a player what Nick Saban is offering and offer more per the CBA between the players and the University. This would eventually get sorted out but that would take years and this would favor only a few private schools and few top recruits in the early going. It would be like Google competing for employees against an upstart. Google can pay you $60,000 a year to start and the upstart has a nice coffee machine and a personable and cute secretary. USC has beautiful women, movie stars, endless marketing opportunity, connections to the NFL, super wealthy donors and Oregon has 3,000,000 uniform combinations and a nice weight room. Even if Phil Knight (Nike) is a donor/President, they’re still a public school and bound to that financially.  USC is not.

The next issue is taxation. Now that private football players are employees everything is taxable in theory. Scholarships, paid room and board,  the actual salary, etc… How much is a scholarship worth? For the sake of brevity let’s put it at $25,000 a year which is pretty close to what it costs to attend one year at USC. So players could potentially be taxed for money they never even saw but how can one not consider an athletic scholarship as a form of payment? So while they made $24,000 (I’m using $2,000 a month as a hypothetical number) in salary they’re going to be on the hook for nearly $50,000 in taxable income. That’s puts them in a middle class tax bracket. This could be ugly for the players.

Back to what I said in the beginning of the article. This ruling allows unionization and employment of football players. This does not address the problem. This would not be needed if this was done at the individual level instead of involving labor unions and labor boards and all the hassle that comes with that. The problem lies within companies making money off of these players and the players themselves unable to make a dime off of their work or name. They’re not even allowed to hold regular jobs in most instances. Make the scholarship a monthly stipend that covers the actual cost of full attendance at a university since scholarships rarely cover this. That would cover the athletes that don’t generally make into the public eye as well and would keep athletes as “student-athletes” and not employees. They would have money for school, room and board, books and perhaps a little extra to spend or saved by the University itself to be reinstated once the athlete graduates or moves on to a professional league for which it would then be bound to taxation. For the kids who end up in video games, plastered on ESPN– or even the relatively unknown Cael Sanderson’s of the world–  merely allow them to market themselves and cash in on their fame. This is separate from the University and would be an independent endeavor. Johnny Manziel has every right to sell his autograph, and Terrell Pryor should be able to sell memorabilia and Nike should pay Oregon players for shamelessly pimping theirheadache inducing products for them. Players should be able to market themselves. I’m sure Asics Sports Apparel would have loved to have Sanderson pimping their wrestling shoes while he was being less beatable than Iron Mike in Mike Tyson’s Punchout! He should be free to pursue that endeavor. There is an archery company that would  love to have whoever the National Champion archer is as the faceof their products. Universities could work something out where they get a small portion of the income to put back into the athletic department or recoup cost of the scholarship or if a player is making enough in endorsements to pay his own tuition then their scholarship is passed along to an athlete/student who actually needs it. They wouldn’t have to be taxed as their scholarship is still just that and not taxable salary and they would pay taxes on their money made in the open market. Olympians are amateur athletes and are allowed to do this. Just allow them to this without an organization extorting money from them for protection.Image



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