'Hey coach, I'm filing a grievance'

'Hey coach, I'm filing a grievance'

Can traditional labor/management separation and workplace rules be stretched to include Zuppke Field at Memorial Stadium?

The times, they are a changin' — and nowhere are the culture and customs shifting faster than in big-time college sports.

With their coffers bulging from millions of new dollars captured through multibillion-dollar television packages, it's only a matter of time before major college sports programs start to offer stipends to their athletes. But even that change is small potatoes compared with a call last week by the College Athletes Players Association for union representation of Division I football and men's basketball programs.

Speaking at a Chicago news conference attended by national union leaders, former Northwestern University quarterback Kail Colter said college athletes need protection in a variety of areas and that recognition of a players' union is the best way to achieve that goal. The organization is petitioning the regional office of the National Labor Relations Board for recognition.

Not surprisingly, the majordomos of college sports are aghast at the suggestion, and they will fight this effort to the bitter end.

Opinions, of course, will differ as to the wisdom, even the morality, of this proposal. Much is asked of and given by major college athletes, and it's hardly unreasonable if they believe they are entitled to share in the incredible bounty their athletic endeavors generate beyond the scholarship most receive.

But this issue will rise or fall on a single critical issue that the NCAA anticipated and addressed decades ago — are these athletes employees of the universities they attend? If they're not employees, they are not entitled to union protection. It's as simple as that.

The universities' position is that they are not employees but "student-athletes." Knowledgeable observers of big-time college sports, like author Taylor Branch, call that term a "myth." It may be, but the concept has weathered many a legal challenge.

In a 2011 Atlantic magazine article entitled "The Shame of College Sports," Branch wrote that the term is "meant to conjure the nobility of amateurism," but that its origins stem "from a sophisticated formulation designed ... to help the NCAA in its fight against workmen's compensation insurance claims for injured football players."

"Using the 'student-athlete' defense, colleges have compiled a string of victories in liability cases," Branch wrote. "... The long saga vindicated the power of the NCAA's 'student-athlete' formulation as a shield, and the organization continues to invoke it as both a legalistic defense and a noble ideal. Indeed, such is the term's rhetorical power that it is increasingly used as a sort of reflexive mantra against charges of rabid hypocrisy."

Union proponents like Colter have a long list of demands of college athletic programs. They seek financial coverage for sports-related injuries, independent concussion experts on the sidelines at games, educational trust funds to help former players graduate and protection against arbitrary decisions to strip players of scholarships.

"A lot of people will think this is all about money. It's not," said Colter.

But it is — money to pay for treatment of old injuries, money to establish educational trust funds, money to fund whatever benefits the college athletes' union seeks. Virtually everything is about the money — who's going to get it, how much and for what purpose.

The fact, however, that it's about the money doesn't diminish from the athletes' moral claim for recognition. It's impossible not to look at the major college sports landscape today and conclude that it's anything other than a sports-related business generating millions of dollars in income.

Much of that money goes to support non-revenue college sports, and, in that context, the NCAA certainly can argue that university athletic programs are not the equivalent of General Motors or Apple. But many coaches and athletic directors earn incomes that would make a traditional CEO drool, and it's hard to find much difference in some of the commercial enterprises operated by university sports programs and private businesses.

As for the athletes, they provide the foundation for the entire enterprise. They certainly work hard and are subject to incredible pressures. But they are not hired; they are recruited as athletes to be students and compete in sports while pursuing, at least theoretically, a college degree. They are not paid a wage; instead they go to school for free and, someday, may be paid a stipend to cover incidental expenses.

That too many of these athletes perceive college sports as a mere steppingstone — the union might called it an apprenticeship — to the NBA or the NFL is an unfortunate byproduct of the system.

Whether that is sufficient to support a legal finding that college athletes are employees entitled to union protection is a matter of legal interpretation, and interpretations can change.

At one time unionized college athletes would have been unthinkable, but major college sports has changed so dramatically that many things once considered unthinkable have become reality.

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