If you’re fascinated over the debate sparked by Northwestern athletes’ attempt to unionize, you’re not alone.
You should talk to West Virginia athletic director Oliver Luck.
In fact, he’s encouraging it.
Recently, Luck sent an email to all Mountaineer Athletic Club Directors (those who donate at least $3,500 annually) asking their opinion on the topic.
“What prompted that,” Luck said, “is in the next six months, there will be a lot of discussions among athletic directors, commissioners and university presidents. And it hit me we really don’t know what our fan base is thinking, so we sent that out.”
The letter described the topic, which centers on the Chicago District National Labor Relations Board’s ruling that football players at Northwestern, a private school, are employees and, as such, have the right to unionize if they choose.
Luck’s letter pointed out that the decision doesn’t currently affect public universities, like WVU. Then it went on.
“Let’s set aside the legal wrangling for a moment,” says the letter. “My interest is in asking your opinion about what the college sports industry should do. What is the appropriate stance that the NCAA should take? What should the position of the Big 12 Conference be in relation to the issue of amateurism? And what position should WVU take?
“Here are some more questions to consider. Is a scholarship valuable consideration based on what we ask our student-athletes to do? Do they deserve more, such as a stipend, health care or educational opportunities that extend beyond their eligibility? Should there be different treatment of revenue vs. non-revenue student-athletes? Would you have the same interest in WVU Athletics if the student-athletes were compensated as employees or were unionized and had collective bargaining rights?”
He pointed out in the letter there are no right or wrong answers. It is, though, an interesting debate.
“It’s a hugely interesting debate,” Luck countered on the phone.
Also, a very under-reported story has made it more interesting. Ohio legislators on April 7 proposed an amendment to House Bill 483, a mid-biennium budget bill, that would clearly exempt student-athletes from being categorized as public employees. Bill sponsor Rep. Ron Amstutz told the Cincinnati Enquirer the proposed legislation was a pre-emptive strike. “I think we’re proactively restating that college athletes are not employees,” Amstutz said. “If it ever comes up, it will be in the law.”
“Funny enough, I read about that in the Cleveland Plain-Dealer and shared that,” Luck said. “It’s an interesting approach. I don’t know if I can pass judgment on it now, but I do think some legislators think we should keep the amateurism ideal.”
The “amateurism ideal” is certainly of what most of us are accustomed. But is it outdated? Is it time to cut the kids in when those running the aforementioned college sports industry — Luck included — are making mints off their sweat?
“The feedback I’ve received so far is our supporters don’t want athletes paid,” said the athletic director. “They’ve said if they want to watch professional sports they would ... They do, though, think [paying] stipends is a good idea. They say that doesn’t have to mean you’re an employee.”
Especially, that is, if states follow the proposed lead of Ohio. Here’s the deal though: Unless every state follows that proposed lead, some — those that allow unionization — might have a competitive edge in recruiting.
“In the northern part of the country, the tradition is to have union states,” Luck said. “Texas is a right-to-work state. You have a patchwork of state law. If Texas does one thing and, say, New Jersey does another, there is a competitive advantage. If the Northwestern case continues to be upheld, there will be. And I’ve read the decision. I think it will continue to be upheld.”
Remember, Luck is a lawyer as well as an athletic director. Yet, as he said, there are no right or wrong answers here. Thus, his outreach.
“I thought it was irresponsible for the suits — of which I am one — to move forward without getting to know what the fans think,” Luck said. “It’s been an interesting exercise.”
The AD said he received about 50 to 60 responses to the first blast and sent out another call for more comment. He invited Mountaineer fans reading this to chime in on the matter by sending an email to MAC@mail.wvu.edu.
“There’s a lot of passion over this,” Luck said. “I’m sincerely interested in how people feel about it. The Olympic model was the last big movement in amateurism — and I think the Olympics are better now.”
Remember that? The Olympics used to be the last bastion for true amateurism. Jim Thorpe, one of the greatest athletes ever, was stripped of his medals because he accepted a small amount of money for playing semi-professional baseball during his college summers.
A movement began there. Eastern Bloc countries were accused of paying their athletes. Television began airing the Games. The International Olympic Committee recognized professional players came prepackaged to viewers. In 1992, voila, you had the Dream Team in Barcelona.
Luck, by the way, said he didn’t believe any responses received so far said unionization was the way to go. My stance: It’s not my decision. It shouldn’t be my decision. And, unless you’re an athlete, it shouldn’t be your decision, either.
In some ways, the Ohio House proposal is objectionable. If courts deem college athletes in this billion-dollar industry “employees” by definition, why should legislators overrule that? Just because?
If you are an athlete, though, understand all the ramifications of pushing to be labeled employees. I mean, find out all of them. Find out if your scholarships will be taxed. (Odds are, by the way, you won’t be able to use TurboTax to file.) Have you ever heard of FICA? And if you form a union, there will be union dues, right? Do you have that?
See, it is an interesting topic. And it’s healthy that Luck wishes to hear different takes.
“It’s an important issue,” he said. “And it’s important we have an idea of what people think as we move forward.”
Reach Mitch Vingle at 304-348-4827, firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at twitter.com/MitchVingle.