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Sports Report: Big changes in college athletics are coming.

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We are in the middle of March Madness but the real news in collegiate athletics isn’t happening on the basketball court.  Thanks to the Northwestern football team, college athletes can now unionize.

Wednesday the National Labor Relations Board ruled that according to federal law, members of the Northwestern football team qualify as employees and can therefore unionize.  The board found that football players materially contribute to colleges and universities collectively earning billions of dollars through ticket sales, television rights, merchandising and licensing.

In addition there is a case currently working its way though federal court from a group of current and former college athletes seeking compensating for the use of their names and likenesses being sold in entertainment packages by athletic conferences.

While the NCAA has defined students athletes as engaging in their sport 20 hours per week in season and 6 hours per week off-season, the reality is football players (and many others) routinely put in 40+ hours per week relating to just their sport.  The results of their work generate millions of dollars for each institution and fill  the pockets of  conference officials, coaches and athletic directors with multi-million dollar contracts.   Unbelievable example number one is Ohio State Athletic Director Gene Smith.  Smith’s contract calls for a base salary of $940,484 with the potential to hit $1.5 million dollars with bonuses.  This past week Smith earned an extra $18,447 because wrestler Logan Steiber won a national championship in the 141 lbs weight class.  Yes 18K because a wrestler, an athlete who gets a fraction of the benefits and support of a division one college football player, won a championship.  Does Steiber get anything?  Maybe a handshake and pat on the back.  His coach?  Probably not nearly as much as the  CEO of the athletic department, AD Smith.  Since when does a non-profit educational administration official earn a bonus larger than the annual earnings of many of the residents of his state?

Sixty years ago tuition, room and board may have been fair compensation for athletes.  The revenues and benefits to their respective institutions was considerably less.  Today billions are earned, people are getting rich and the athletes who put their bodies on the line get essentially the same thing they did 60 years ago despite significantly more risk and serious long-term consequences to their health.

Are college athletics a business? Three major conferences (Big 10, Pac 12 and SEC) own or are partners in their own television networks.  College teams and players are featured in video games.  College players are essentially paid with athletic scholarships that are directly tied to their participation and performance in the athletic program.

What do the players hope to achieve with their new-found status?  Better health/disability coverage for current and former players, improved head injury policies and procedures, the ability to pursue commercial sponsorship, potentially additional stipends to cover living expenses.  Possibly even a share of the revenue they create places into trust for them to access following their collegiate careers.

The impact of this decision will reach far beyond division one football and basketball programs.  There are issues of gender equity under Title IX that will require policies put in place for revenue generating men’s sports to be extended to women’s sports as well as non-revenue producing athletes.  There are going to years of challenges from institutions, conferences and the NCAA.  Yesterday’s ruling applied only to private institutions, not public universities, so there will be repercussions as public institutions react to compete with their private employer competitors for the athletic services of the next round of college all-stars.

One thing is for sure.  There is too much money in the game today for this to be the end of what is going to be a long and drawn out saga of legacy institutions fighting to protect full control and ownership of the revenue streams they now enjoy.

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