For the love of the game…until further notice

Pete Barrows

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A rose by any other name would smell as sweet, but what about a sweat-drenched student-athlete?

Across NCAA Division I and Division II collegiate athletics, more than $2 billion in scholarship funds are distributed to more than 126,000 student-athletes, but in an industry where there are more than 420,000 student-athlete participants and more than $11 billion in revenue generated — despite the fact that only about the top 10 percent of athletic programs turn a profit — the equity of the student-athlete to school relationship might be questioned.

For years, it has been, but on April 25, football players at Northwestern University will put it to a vote. The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) officially recognized and approved the Northwestern players as employees, and pending the vote by the team, might have opened the door for the first authorized union in the landscape of college sports.

While other recently arranged legal filings, for instance the O’Bannon class action suit, a suit that attacks the NCAA’s use of student-athlete’s likeness in merchandising, and the Kessler antitrust lawsuit, a suit raised against the five power conferences — the SEC, Big Ten, ACC, Pac-12 and Big 12 — that would allow student-athletes to be paid beyond their athletic scholarships, if approved, could have an immediate and wide ranging effect on the scope of Division I college athletics, the Northwestern vote would pertain only to Northwestern…at least for now.

The question remains, though, if one domino is tipped, how many others will tumble? How far will the proverbial Rue Goldberg machine reach? What exactly is a student-athlete – are they participants in extra-curricular activities or service providers for the institutions that they represent? And how should they be classified?

“I would personally disagree with the National Labor Relations Board, and I would say student-athletes are not employees,” Grand Valley State University Director of Athletics Tim Selgo said. “I have a hard time with what little I know about unions and unionization of how you could declare student-athletes as employees, but the question at the heart of all of this remains are they employees or not?

“From my viewpoint, college sports are an extra-curricular activity. It’s a voluntary activity, distinct from employment. Any student-athlete could choose not to participate if he or she didn’t want to do it, and if you want to be successful at it, you must be dedicated and you must be committed, because it is highly competitive.”

It has also been argued that as much revenue and attention a high-profile student-athlete can bring to an institution, that a signed scholarship, an agreement to play for a team and a program, is every bit as binding as a monetary contract.

That college sports are a business, even if we would choose to perceive them as the last frontier of pure, unadulterated amateur sport. That no matter how much money an institution stands to make from merchandising, player branding or advertising, that the student-athletes that sign on know the rules of the game just as well as the schools do and agreed to play by them when they enlisted their services.

“Anytime there is a unionization, it’s usually because there are a few at the top getting wealthy on the backs of others, and I’m sure that’s what those student-athletes are looking at,” Selgo said. “They’re watching people in college athletics getting wealthy, while they’re doing all the work, and so it’s understandable that we’re at this point.

“At the same time, I think that the concern Mark Emmert (NCAA CEO) is expressing – that our current model of collegiate athletics, and keep in mind, we’re the only nation in the world that has this model that has worked extremely well, has a high-degree of interest in our society and has benefited a lot of men and women, is going to be impacted in a negative way – has always been a legitimate concern.

“Regardless of the complaints one would have with this model – and everything in sports is up for debate — a governing body like the NCAA – whether you call it the NCAA or something else – is still needed, and it has served both the schools and the association, and this country very well.”

Under the current construct, Division II programs like GVSU are allotted 36 scholarship equivalencies for football, generally divided amongst the team in quarter and half-ride denominations and funded both directly by the institution, and through ticket sales, sponsorships and fundraising generated directly by the athletic program.

Other GVSU teams, as well as other Division II athletic programs, are funded similarly, although in most cases on a lower scale; there are not many Division II programs that generate more funds than GVSU football.

And under the current construct, even if a union deal is reached, Division II athletic programs are not likely to be heavily affected…for now. That could change if the student-athlete label of “employee” sticks around to stay.

“It’s something I figured would eventually happen because of how much players invest into what they do everyday, but it’s been interesting to watch it develop,” GVSU football and baseball standout Jamie Potts said. “Eventually, there has to be something done – a lot of these big-time players are making so much money for their schools that not doing anything is going to become problematic – and I think in some capacity, this movement is going to gain a lot of steam.

“I think sports can teach you a lot, especially in college, and can help you grow as a person, but I also think that there are athletes making their schools more well-known and bringing attention to their schools that wouldn’t exist otherwise. It’s a symbiotic relationship in a lot of ways, but with everything athletes do, I tend to lean more towards the players side of the perspective.

“Playing sports, all the trips and all the workouts and all of the practices, it all consumes a lot of your time – it’s like a job, honestly – but I do see where both sides are coming from.”

In labor law, whether an employer is actually making money isn’t particularly relevant, either; the only thing that matters is the employee label, and whether an individual is working for someone’s benefit. Employer profit margins aside, employees, by law, still must be compensated – and empowered with the right to negotiate.

On a Division I level, that right could lead to a proposal including terms like more advanced injury prevention, guaranteed medical coverage for sport-related injuries and full-cost, five-year scholarships – and a complete rejection of pay-for-play, which at the moment, has not even been formally proposed at Northwestern.

On a Division II level, or even a Division III level where there are no formal scholarships endowed, if a union is made available to join, that right could lead to a proposal of more comprehensive scholarship funding for a wider population of student-athletes, albeit at a greater, potentially limiting cost to the university.

“Even if joining a union were an option for me, it’d be tough to decide,” Potts said. “I understand the concerns, but I think there are better ways to solve them than what they’re going for right now.

“Instead of paying players or deciding who gets what, I think if they’re going to do anything concerning money that they should generate more scholarships. There are a lot of athletes that spend a lot of time, and aren’t getting paid very much to go to school. They’re getting $1,000 or maybe their books paid for, but I think with the funds schools have access to and the amount of time the athletes put in, more could be done.

“There are so many kids, here at GVSU even, that commit so much of their time and energy to their programs. You know we have guys on the football team that are considered walk-ons who aren’t getting any kind of scholarship or financial aid, that are helping our team get better and playing just because they love it. And as a scholarship athlete, it’s tough to see that because you’re there and are getting a lot more than they are to do the same thing.

“It’s just one of those things that needs to be changed, and I think at most any school, it’s something than can be changed. For most schools and athletic programs, it isn’t a lack of money that’s the problem, and I think if you’re going to have these sports teams, you should be able to take care of your players, at least as far as school is concerned, for their contributions.”

In the struggle to create balance in college sports, perhaps the problem is that there is no true balance to be found. If athletes are to be one day paid, or more acutely, granted a bigger piece of the pie they help bake, who gets what?

For every Johnny Manziel, that as reported by TIME magazine in 2012 helped Texas A&M generate an estimated $72 million in branded merchandise in a year, there are hundreds of other student-athletes that cost the university to keep – should everyone get an equal cut? Do all athletes get treated equally? How would athletes be proportionally compensated without creating factions amongst teams, without destroying college sports as we know them?

Perhaps the answer is they can’t. That a rose by any other name is just a stick with thorns.

For now, Selgo and the rest of GVSU Athletics are content to wait and watch for the dominoes to fall – if they fall at all – while concentrating instead on matters at hand. Like a spring sport season that is finally getting a little spring weather, and hosting NCAA national champions in men’s golf and outdoor track and field in May.

Although as long as there’s (absorbent amounts of) money in college sports, the questions will continue to be asked until all the rose pedals have been picked off – even if it takes years before GVSU has to answer any of them.

“I think anytime that you’re getting school paid for, even if it’s not a full ride, to do something you love, is worth it, but I think, maybe not so much on the Division II and III levels, that there are players on the Division I that get so little of a reward in proportion to what they provide,” Potts said.

“The NCAA, the BCS, college sports will all be affected in some way, and it’ll be interesting to see what the scale and range of that impact will be. Good for college athletes if they get more out of the school-athlete relationship, but if not, it is what it is; at least you get to do something you love a few extra years.”