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April 02, 2014

Unionization Wrong Move For College Athletes


Some jeered, most cheered. Whether you are a hardcore sports fan or a casual one, you likely had some reaction to last week's ruling from the National Labor Relations Board in Chicago that Northwestern University football players are employees and can unionize.

Many see this is a chance for the players to finally stick it to those "greedy school administrators and the NCAA." Not me. I see a sad story, and a crusade championed by many in the sports media.

Where I would like to see improvements for college athletes is medical coverage. I do believe universities, and/or the NCAA, should be responsible for athletes' injuries that happen on the school's watch. While this is certainly on the union's agenda, another eventual goal is to provide four year scholarships, rather than one-year renewables.

So how would players feel about a two weeks' notice instead?

While "pay-for-play" is not listed as an immediate goal of the union, it would be naïve to think that isn't on its long-term agenda. But, the value of an education is being incredibly undervalued.

The median income with Bachelors in the United States is $45,000 compared to $30,000 with High School diploma. If you were to extrapolate that over a 40 year work career, we're looking at $600,000 of earning potential; and remember, this does not include upwards of $200,000 in education, room, and board received by an athlete during his four to five year collegiate career.

Despite what we are led to believe, there are only a handful of student athletes worth more than potentially $800,000. Frankly, most players aren't even worth their $200,000 in scholarship over four years. The Johnny Manziels, Tim Tebos, and Jabari Parkers of the world are worth more. But of the 85 players on each college football team, and 13 on a college basketball team, the majority isn't worth close to that kind of money.

But, even the big stars are using the exposure and branding of Alabama football, or Duke basketball, to build their own brand. Don't forget, these young men could skip college, go to play NBA D League, or play hoops in Europe, and football players could join the Arena League at 18 years old.

But the players know that Notre Dame and North Carolina get more exposure, which can lead to being a top pick in the NFL or NBA draft. Playing in front of millions on TV can also help to build the individuals' brand to land endorsements, in some cases before taking a professional snap or making a shot (see: Manziel, Johnny & Nike).

Also, Northwestern players will face many hurdles before the union becomes a reality. The University has appealed, and if that fails, expect a lawsuit. Ultimately, if Northwestern players are allowed to unionize, what happens when Northwestern agrees to terms with players that violate NCAA or Big Ten rules?

Northwestern could find itself without a football conference. Let's not forget that the public universities and right-to-work states (Texas, Alabama, etc.) are unlikely to be able to unionize. Think conferences will make exceptions for Stanford, Baylor, Duke, Wake Forest or Vanderbilt? Fat chance.

There is still plenty left to be told in this story, but my hope is that Northwestern wins its appeal and we can put the issue to bed (for the time being). While unionization might have some benefits to football and men's basketball players, what happens to the other athletic programs within the university? In many cases, football and basketball fund the volleyball and soccer teams. Robbing Peter to pay Paul is no way to solve the issue. If that happens, the only winners: union lawyers.

Pete is a lifelong Montauk resident and former sports talk host at 88.7FM WEER. He's currently a Sports Anchor at WCBS 880 and WFAN radio in NYC. He can be reached via email at peterfmundo@gmail.com.

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