New union movement in college sports?

By Sam Donnelly
On February 7, 2014

For the first time in NCAA history, student athletes are attempting to claim themselves as employees and form their own union. This not only has connotations for NCAA Division I athletics, but also TV stations, administrative jobs and, ultimately, the professional sports industry.

Northwestern starting quarterback Kain Colter is spearheading the movement. To this point, at least 26 student athletes have signed union cards that attempt to claim them as paid employees by the school. This claim will open the door for many student athletes, including those at UNH. 

"Ultimately, it is a possibility at any university with students who want to seek benefits," UNH law professor and Sports Illustrated consultant Michael McCann said. "Hypothetically it could happen anywhere." 

In the eyes of UNH athletic director Marty Scarano, unionization seems unlikely. 

"There isn't a lot for student athletes to gain by unionizing here." Scarano said. "We aren't a school with huge programs raking in money each year."

With the help of Ramogi Huma, president of the National College Players association, and the United Steelworkers Union, the union cards signed by the players were submitted to the NLRB - the federal statutory body that recognizes groups who seek collective bargaining rights and will be processed. 

In an interview with ESPN's "Outside the Lines" Kain Colter explained the simple logistics of this claim. 

"We are employees," Colter said. "We are paid with scholarships to play and the new stipend checks for the cost of attendance. It's that simple. There are basic rights that are not addressed for college athletes. "

The rights that Kolter claims aren't met are in the realm of medical and academic necessity. 

Medically speaking, Kolter reveals that injuries sustained during a college competition aren't always guaranteed to be covered by the school. If an athlete is injured in college and faces major surgery down the line, the University doesn't cover those either. 

The academic issue is perhaps the most glaring. The top-50 college basketball and football schools have a combined graduation rate of less than 50 percent. Kolter said that there is no incentive to go to class for some players, much less graduate. 

"It is hard to play sports and be academically successful," Kolter said. "Especially when its acceptable to miss academic stuff for football, but if you decide to miss football for school your scholarship might no longer be there."

McCann acknowledges these facts, but argues that it's all relative. 

"There is some truth to those arguments, but it completely depends on the athlete, the school, and the sport," McCann said. "The revenue Alabama football brings into the school is a ton more than that of UNH, so the argument is stronger for the Alabama players. It comes down to money."

In terms of UNH athletes trying to join this cause, it would be difficult and unlikely. 

UNH's biggest sport is hockey, which in the past decade has declined in popularity due to the recent success of the Boston Bruins. The schools whose athletes are looking to unionize are coming from universities with big basketball and football programs whose revenues generate millions for the school.

"It's not as if UNH is getting wealthy off the backs of our student athletes," Scarano said. "Even in a good year, men's hockey, generally speaking, pays for itself."

The other issue for UNH athletes is the law. Northwestern, being a private school, abides by completely different laws towards unionizing than public universities. Private institutions may seek unionization under federal law, while all public and state schools must work with state laws, which vary by state, and often times are much more demanding and time consuming. 

"This is going to have to be a serious change in law," McCann said. "Right now, to the law, they aren't athletes, they are students.  

With no real footing for UNH athletes to dig into, the chances of the unionization hitting UNH are minimal. Nationally, however, this case and the people involved are just getting started. 

"Every couple of weeks we will probably see another school join," McCann said. "It is going to be a while until this is ultimately resolved. The National Labor Relations Board will decide most likely in 2016."

This may be the first attempt for student-athletes to unionize, but it isn't the first attempt to seek money. Ed O'Bannon, former UCLA shooting guard, created a case against the NCAA claiming that student athletes, past and present, should be compensated when their picture is used. All signs in this case point toward a settlement in the near future. 

"I think the O'Bannon case will settle," McCann said. "If the rules on compensation for photos and video games change then the unionization effort will lose it's steam. If suddenly some student athletes receive money for their photos, the issue won't seem as bad."

Ultimately, no matter what happens in either case, the NCAA's relations with its student athletes will never be the same. This is just the first step towards what is considered an inevitable future where our student-athletes receive some form of compensation. 

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