The Enid News and Eagle, Enid, OK

March 29, 2014

RUTHENBERG: Unionizing college athletics means losing opportunities

Dave Ruthenberg, Sports Editor
Enid News and Eagle

— When National Labor Relations Board regional director Peter Ohr issued his stunning ruling last week out of Chicago giving Northwestern University football players the go-ahead to begin forming a union by classifying them as employees, it sent shockwaves across the college athletic landscape and beyond.

It also is likely to have unintended, negative consequences impacting opportunities for future students. Those were among the concerns expressed recently by the athletic directors of Northwestern Oklahoma State University in Alva, and at Northern Oklahoma College, a two-year junior college with campuses in Enid and Tonkawa, when contacted for their thoughts.

NOC athletic director Jeremy Hise has suggested the ruling, if applied to other universities, and is upheld on appeal, “would end up with a lot of programs dropping (scholarship athletics) all together.” Hise believes that would ultimately harm the prospective student, who would have one less opportunity to attend college.

Northwestern University in Illinois has indeed appealed Ohr’s ruling, which means it heads to Washington, D.C. (and that shouldn’t provide comfort to anyone) for further adjudication.

Ohr’s ruling followed a petition by Wildcats’ outgoing quarterback Kain Colter seeking the ability to form something called the College Athletes Players Association (CAPA). Colter said the goal of CAPA would include guaranteeing coverage of related medical expenses for both current and former players and would allow players to pursue commercial scholarships.

In order to do that, however, they had to be deemed employees, which seems to be a stretch.

Ohr’s ruling certainly was puzzling. He declared the football players at Northwestern fell “well within the broad definition of an employee.” He criticizes, in his ruling, the evidence presented by Northwestern. “No examples were provided of scholarship players being permitted to miss entire practices to attend their studies,” Ohr said in his ruling. In other words, he partly based his opinion on the fact Northwestern could not provide evidence of something it did not do.

Currently, Ohr’s ruling does not extend beyond Northwestern as the NLRB does not have jurisdiction over public institutions. But, the potential for this to become far-reaching is a significant concern as future litigation supporting players unionizing would certainly cite Ohr’s ruling. And, while supporters rejoice, they fail to grasp the more insidious nature of this decision.

But athletic administrators are lining up to sound the warning.

Andy Carter, the athletic director at NWOSU, offered his own opinion on the matter. “The issue is still a long way from being resolved, but I fear that we are on the brink of losing great opportunities for most, for the sake of paying a few.”

Like Hise, Carter is referring to the fact that, if forced to begin paying athletes or providing employee-like benefits, all but a select few schools could afford to do so, with most likely opting out of scholarship athletics.

NWOSU is currently going through Candidacy Year 2 in its transition to NCAA Division II, where partial scholarships are more the rule than full rides, but the value even of a partial scholarship is considerable, the loss of which would certainly be felt.

“... The opportunity for an education at a discounted cost and a life-changing experience in college athletics are among the benefits each student receives from their efforts athletically,” Carter said.

NOC’s Hise said, outside of the six so-called power conferences, few schools could bear the additional costs.

“If it continues on this path (as the NLRB ruling) and makes it into public schools, only a small number of schools that could afford it would continue to do so. Most would become like Division III, where there is no scholarship money involved,” Hise said.

Before you scoff, keep in mind that beyond the power conferences, most schools’ football budgets operate in the red.

Some may believe the NCAA has brought this on itself with uneven policies that seem to unfairly impact athletes, while schools make significant sums of money.

While the NCAA may at times be its own worst enemy, unionizing players hardly seems the answer when weighed against the potential loss of educational opportunities.

“Athletics has been a great way to achieve diversity in the student body,” Hise said. “We would lose that. The number of people that are able to pursue other careers because of athletic scholarships is tremendous.

“Athletics has been able to provide a life-changing experience for people who would not otherwise have that choice.”

Let that sink in for a moment.

The trade-off hardly seems worth it.

Ruthenberg is sports editor at the News & Eagle. Contact him at daver@enidnews.com.