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Monson: Is college football on the brink of a frightening explosion?

Published March 29, 2014 9:23 pm

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

OK, here's what is most frightening about a regional National Labor Relations Board approving Northwestern University football players' request to unionize: the potential unintended or unimagined consequences that could detonate out of that approval.

Here's what most scares a whole lot of college sports fans: the general philosophical shift or acknowledgement that these athletes are, in fact, employees of a school, not just students. While that acknowledgement carries with it much of the same collateral mystery, the fear in this case is bigger than just that.

For some reason, many lovers of college football are hesitant to cross over that amateur-to-pro threshold. They want to believe in the faux glory, the romance of amateurism, that these athletes aren't mercenaries, that they are putting in 40 to 60 hours of work each week — lifting, training, conditioning, studying film, traveling, attending meetings, practicing, playing — for the noble cause of their education, for pleasing fans and for building the brand of the alma mater.

At the upper reaches of college football, some of the particulars inside that nobility have been a sham for years. Athletes are there, first and foremost, to score touchdowns, not score A's on their exams. It's just a fact.

Ask athletes who have requested to miss practices for other priorities about how that goes over. Ask athletes who want to take a class scheduled at or near practice times. Consider the motivations of coaches who enter the homes of targeted recruits. Why are they there? Does it have anything to do with academic potential? Think about this: Who benefits most when a team puts up a couple seasons of stellar records? The players get memories. The head coach gets millions.

Traditionally, the schools have fostered and embraced that antiquated notion because they've wanted to preserve the economic advantages to them created by it and they haven't wanted to take upon themselves the disadvantages of greater economic responsibility or liability for compensating that workforce beyond scholarships for labor and in the cases of injury.

And that model has worked nicely for big schools and their conferences that are profiting to the tune of millions and billions of dollars in television money, ticket and concessions sales, merchandising and booster donations, all while the athletes are supposed to feel grateful for a scholarship that gives them an education, but limits them with rules steeped toward advantages for the universities. Some of those rules run from the unfair to the ridiculous. Athletes can't profit from their own likenesses or images, but schools and conferences can? Ask Ed O'Bannon about that one.

It's time to redistribute bits of the power and the money that favor the institutions. That's a complicated deal, but not an impossible one. We've built satellites that can peer into the window of your house and identify the brand of sliced bread on your kitchen countertop from 45 miles up, we should be able to properly and equitably organize college football. While rearranging those resources might create larger gaps between the haves and the have-nots — many have-nots don't gain money on account of football, they lose it — those gaps are widening, anyway.

What happens next at Northwestern is a must watch. The players will vote now on whether to unionize. If they unionize, will the union then be able to negotiate with the school for additional benefits? If it gains those benefits, will it violate NCAA rules? Will other players at other schools follow suit?

Northwestern is appealing the regional NLRB ruling to the general board. If the ruling is upheld, the dispute is likely to tumble into court. And from there … who knows? Worth noting is that state schools are not governed by the NLRB, they are subject to state labor laws. And if players at other private schools want to follow the Northwestern players' lead, they first would be subject to other regional NLRB decisions.

More questions linger: If athletes are university employees, in part, by way of the money given them for tuition, books, housing, et cetera, would that compensation be taxable income? If it is taxable, who would be able to afford that kind of additional expense? Since an important part of the NLRB ruling that the Northwestern players were university employees was based on the millions of dollars that football program generates for the school, what happens now with athletes in sports that don't generate that kind of income? Are they employees or students? Can they unionize? What about ramifications for the overlay with Title IX?

Man, oh man.

Maybe building those satellites that can read from space the labels of your preferred brands of lunchmeat sitting on your counter is easier, after all.

Finding some reasonable middle ground, upon which NCAA institutions loosen their ropes and athletes gain more assurances and compensation for their services, is probably doable. Otherwise, this matter could spill into the courts in nuclear fashion and the bomb that blows will scare the daylights out of everybody.

GORDON MONSON hosts "The Big Show" with Spence Checketts weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM/1280 and 960 AM The Zone. Twitter: @GordonMonson.