College football players spend hours each week practicing, working out, studying film and, on Saturdays during the season, playing games.
There are off-season commitments, too, such as spring practices and weightlifting. Players show up when they’re told, and go home when they’re allowed.
For those on scholarship, the deal comes with a free education. But should there be more compensation for players who help their universities and others make millions of dollars?
That’s what a five-member National Labor Relations Board committee will determine this summer when it decides whether to uphold a regional director’s March ruling that Northwestern football players are employees of the school and can unionize.
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TCU athletic director Chris Del Conte is concerned with the prospect of college athletics coexisting with unions. If the original ruling is upheld, athletes at private schools — like TCU — would have a strong precedent if they wanted to unionize.
“I don’t think they are an employee of an institution. I think they’re a student,” Del Conte said. “I was surprised by the ruling when you consider that when a student-athlete comes to TCU, this is not a five-year decision. This is a 50-year decision.”
Del Conte’s other problem with a possible union relates to an issue that often pops up in pay-for-play debates: Much of the focus usually centers on football and men’s basketball, the two (for the most part) money-making sports.
“My initial reaction was that I have 520 athletes at TCU,” Del Conte said.
The NLRB ruling in March didn’t reference any sport other than football. Plus, it’s hard to pay student-athletes when most athletic departments don’t break even.
Even after a bump in revenue from joining the Big 12 in 2012, TCU is still about five years away from making a profit, associate athletics director Jack Hesselbrock said last fall. Financial information for private schools is scarce, but USA Today reported last summer that only 23 of 228 Division I public schools made enough money in 2012 to cover expenses.
The Northwestern union movement began drawing headlines last September when several Northwestern players — including quarterback Kain Colter — began writing “APU,” for All Players United, on the tape around their wrists worn during games.
Then, in January, the National College Players Association, an independent advocacy group for student-athletes, filed a petition to the Chicago office of the National Labor Relations Board, arguing on behalf Northwestern scholarship football players’ right to unionize.
Two months later, Peter Sung Ohr, the NLRB Chicago regional director, ruled that Northwestern scholarship players were employees subject to the National Labor Relations Act.
Ohr pointed to the revenue driven from the players’ involvement with the sport, social media restrictions and other rules players must follow without much say. Ohr also concluded that the Northwestern players weren’t “primarily students.”
“Not only is this more hours than many undisputed full-time employees work at their jobs, it is also many more hours than the players spend on their studies,” Ohr wrote. “In fact, the players do not attend academic classes while in training camp or the first few weeks of the regular season.”
Ohr ordered a union vote, which was held in April. The results of the vote will only be revealed if the NLRB upholds the original ruling.
Ohr’s ruling established an employer-employee relationship between Northwestern and its scholarship football players, said Michael Z. Green, a professor at the Texas A&M School of Law in Fort Worth, who specializes in labor law.
That means, if a union was in place, players would be able to argue against following certain rules, making the day-to-day existence of a union in college athletics challenging.
Del Conte agreed that student-athletes at TCU have to follow certain rules that normal college students don’t.
In 2011, Gary Patterson disciplined running back Aundre Dean for tweeting a video of a skirmish between teammates during a summer practice. Patterson banned Dean, a journalism major, from interviewing other TCU athletes for stories.
Football players could not be interviewed for this story, and must conduct all interviews through the department’s media relations staff.
But playing football, Del Conte said, is an added benefit of receiving a free education, which, according to the school’s most recent tuition estimates, is worth around $200,000 for four years. And sometimes that added benefit comes with extra levels of scrutiny.
“The jersey never comes off, but it is a great privilege to wear the jersey,” he said.
Del Conte not alone
Northwestern athletic director Jim Phillips and football coach Pat Fitzgerald have expressed their discontent with a possible players union.
“It goes against all we believe is right in college athletics,” Phillips told the Chicago Tribune at the Big Ten spring meetings in May.
Fitzgerald testified in an NLRB hearing in February that “young men have to understand that they’re making a choice. ... If they choose to be an athlete, that there’s a commitment that they have to make to be the best that they possibly can be.”
In May John Muir, the athletic director at Stanford — another private school — told USA Today that his school would “opt for a different [competition] model” if Stanford athletes were ever ruled employees. Baylor president Ken Starr was also critical, telling the newspaper that the National Labor Relations Act is “emphatically not” the answer to issues in college athletics.
Yves Batoba, the Big 12 representative for the NCAA Student-Athlete Advisory Committee, said unionizing isn’t the answer. He played football at Oklahoma State from 2009-12 after graduating from Keller High School.
“It’s definitely an absolute privilege, first of all, to [have worn] orange and black and play for head coach Mike Gundy,” he said. “The value of an education is something that is being downplayed in this situation,” Batoba said. “I think that actually gets overlooked by the general public more than it does by actual student-athletes.”
Said Del Conte: “We’ve done a poor job at saying here’s the benefits kids receive from college.”
‘A seat at the table’
Del Conte said increased dialogue between student-athletes and administrators is one solution.
“The immediate thing is that the student-athletes’ voices want to be heard, and they want a seat at the table,” Del Conte said. “And I agree with that.”
Batoba pointed to the proposed change in the Division I Board of Governors, which would include a student-athlete representative, as progress. At the campus level, Del Conte said he has an open-door policy.
“Those [talks] are always ongoing,” Del Conte said. “To me, it’s what can we do to help their experience at TCU better. But I don’t think they’re an employee of an institution. I think they’re a student.”
For now, all Del Conte can do is all anyone else involved in college athletics can do: Wait.
“I’m not Nostradamus in terms of what is going or not going to transpire,” he said. “Am I concerned? Sure. We don’t know where this is heading.”