NFL Hall of Famers say NCAA needs to change but union unnecessary
To Franco Harris, the fictional scenario is so implausible, it's almost laughable.
It's the eve of the Penn State-Pitt game in 1969, and the Nittany Lions are two wins away from an unbeaten regular season and a major bowl game. But as the players gather for dinner, coach Joe Paterno detects unrest.
Finally, a co-captain walks up to Paterno and says, “Joe, we know it's a big game, but some of the guys don't even have a dime to call their parents back home. The practices were too long this week, and there wasn't enough study time. And our tight end lost his job because of an injury.
“Sorry, Joe, but unless we're allowed to form a players' union and make some money from these games and arbitrate our disagreements, we're going on strike and not playing tomorrow.”
Harris is certain what the late Paterno's reaction would have been.
“Are you crazy!” Harris said, imitating Paterno's unmistakably high-pitched voice. “Get out of here!”
Get out of here, indeed, was the reaction of many major college presidents when National Labor Relations Board regional director Peter Sung Ohr of Chicago ruled in March that Northwestern football players are employees rather than mere students and thus have the right to form a union. Ohr's decision cited how athletic departments are run more like businesses because of the large amount of money they generate.
The ruling sent a shockwave through every college that sponsors sports teams. Academia and athletic departments began weighing the once-unthinkable but now possible consequences of the ruling such as:
• Student-athlete salaries, perhaps sizable ones given the $6 billion per year that high-level sports generate for colleges, plus additional player revenue for commercial sponsorships.
• Grievances/lawuits over playing time or dismissal from a team.
• Player walkouts if a practice was too long or hard.
• Millions of dollars in payments for ongoing medical coverage for players, perhaps for decades.
Watching from afar, Harris said he could only think, “Everybody benefits (from big-time college sports). The college, the fans, the NFL. So why not make it a little nicer for the athletes?”
Jim Brown, more than 50 years removed from his Syracuse career but still considered one of football's all-time great running backs, was even more outspoken.
“I'm totally for change — and total change,” Brown said at a roundtable discussion during a recent Pro Football Hall of Fame gathering in Cleveland. “I think that (the NCAA) needs to be torn apart and put back together with everybody's best interests in mind.”
It has been 30 years since the Supreme Court stripped the NCAA of its right to oversee college football's TV contracts — leaving conferences, schools and, later, the BCS to share the billions of dollars of TV revenue — but Brown still believes the NCAA is behind all that's wrong with college sports. And all that ever has been wrong.
“The NCAA is probably the most reprehensible organization,” Brown said. “Total exploitation. The kind of money they make, the kind of life they live, it's embarrassing.”
Brown isn't the only one angry. Since the regional NLRB ruling, numerous NCAA Division I athletes have spoken out about how little time and money they have because of overly restrictive rules and demanding schedules.
Shabazz Napier, the star guard for NCAA men's basketball champion Connecticut, embarrassed the NCAA by saying its tight restrictions on meals forced him to go to bed “starving” some nights. The NCAA subsequently relaxed its meals policy, allowing Division I programs to grant athletes unlimited meals and snacks.
The NCAA also drew ridicule after it was revealed that Boise State football recruit Antoine Turner, a junior college player who lost his mother at age 4, was homeless until he could enroll in school. Boise State supporters were warned the school could be penalized if boosters helped Turner.
But union backers insist this isn't a money grab. If athletes are considered employees, they likely would have to pay taxes on their compensation. Union backers mostly are seeking funds for the long-term medical treatment of players injured while in school and financial help for former athletes so they can complete their degrees after their athletic eligibility and scholarships have ended.
Even a little would go a long way for athletes who aren't allowed to hold summer jobs because of the possibility they might be hired by school boosters, Harris said.
“When I was in college, we got $15 a month, and that meant a lot to me. That was the only money I had because my parents did not give me a dollar the four years I was in school,” Harris said. “Also, we were allowed to sell our (game) tickets. Then the NCAA took all that away. It looked like all they did through time was take, take, take, take, take.”
Such embarrassments create sympathy for the union cause, but it appears locker rooms won't be doubling as union locals in the short term.
The National Labor Relations Board must decide whether to change, overrule or uphold Ohr's ruling. The NLRB is giving both sides until June 26 to file legal briefs and until July 10 to file briefs responding to the initial filings.
While the NLRB could allow Northwestern's scholarship football players to unionize, the ruling would affect only the 17 private schools that belong to the Football Bowl Subdivision. The 109 public schools — including Pitt, Penn State and West Virginia — would not be affected because the NLRB has no jurisdiction over them. However, any successful effort by the College Athletics Players Association would be watched closely by Pitt because, of those 17 private schools, five belong to the ACC (Boston College, Duke, Miami, Syracuse and Wake Forest) and a sixth, Notre Dame, is a part-time member.
If those schools can begin offering player-related benefits that public schools can't, they might have a recruiting advantage.
Randall McDaniel, a Pro Football Hall of Fame guard for the Minnesota Vikings and Tampa Bay Buccaneers, can't find much sympathy for players who receive an estimated $2.4 billion worth of scholarships annually.
“If you go to college, get a free education, room and board, free books, tuition all paid for, meals given — yeah the school makes a lot of money off you, but you're getting a free education and a free ride,” McDaniel said. “So I'm on the other end of it.”
Even if private college football players vote to unionize, they cannot negotiate on major issues such as compensation and injury claims because those are controlled mostly by the NCAA, not the universities. What players are likely to seek is long-term medical coverage, especially for any head-related or debilitating injuries.
While a definitive NLRB ruling might not be forthcoming, some NCAA reform could be in sight.
As illustrated by the Napier case, the NCAA appears to be looking more sympathetically at overhaul, and there are hints of a restructuring that could be announced before the start of the college football season in August.
Harris remains thankful for his free college education, but he is glad NCAA reforms appear to be pending — and might not require union intervention.
“I just feel they lost touch with what was going on,” he said.
Alan Robinson is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @arobinson_Trib.
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