Tate: Don't lose sleep over union case

Tate: Don't lose sleep over union case

Amid the consternation and furor over the National Labor Relations Board’s regional decision to accept Northwestern athletes as union employees, have you noticed that the NCAA’s five major conferences are already taking steps in resolving the issues of concern.

First, understand that through appeals and lawyerly delays, the resolution of the Northwestern case will take years.

In the meantime, the Big Ten and other four conferences are, through burgeoning broadcast revenue, accumulating money to spare and are already setting up the governance standards to hopefully resolve three crucial issues: (1) Money for athletes, (2) long-term insurance coverage for injuries sustained in college and (3) less demands on athletes’ time.

So responding to the needs of student-athletes is already in the pipeline.

In fact, Illini athletic director Mike Thomas addressed those issues Saturday and indicated (1) a stipend, mostly likely in the $2,000 range, should be in place by 2015-16, (2) a compromise solution to long-term medical care for injuries sustained in college is already in the discussion stages and (3) he favors an offseason period where athletes at all schools are given a respite and aren’t even allowed on the premises.

Not that athletes like Rayvonte Rice will cease shooting baskets.

But the message would be clear: Everybody needs a break; relax for a while, guys, and come back stronger.

As for additional pay, nearly 300 of the 351 schools playing Division I basketball would be hard-pressed to pay stipends, much less salaries, particularly if it includes a large football squad that doesn’t draw.

And that’s why the big schools are separating themselves ... they were outvoted when the stipend resolution was brought up last year.

As for time demands, the NCAA already has a weekly 20-hour limit in which student-athletes can be supervised by coaches or staff.

That includes no more than four hours per day (game days are calculated as three hours, regardless of length).

But that’s just in season.

Travel days, in which athletes are under strict supervision, don’t count ... and coaches have no time limits during spring or holiday breaks.

Perhaps some limitations should be placed on coaches during these “off periods.”

Learning curve
Even if the Northwestern quest flounders at some point along the legal trail, it will surely expedite more serious discussions on issues like time demands.

To put things in perspective, we’re not talking about Kentucky’s basketball team or Alabama’s football team here.

A good percentage of the Wildcat and Tide athletes are in it to make a living out of sports, at least in the short term.

Most schools are like Illinois where 520 male and female athletes compete, and perhaps 500 need to prepare themselves to mesh seamlessly into adult life unrelated to sports competition.

And for the 20 who might be thinking otherwise, they should realize that whatever they accomplish in the next five or 10 years as athletes, they may still have another half-century on this earth.

Has it become old-fashioned to mention the extraordinary value of a college education?

However difficult it may be to find a job at age 22, does anyone want to argue that your chances of integrating into society aren’t better if you are grounded academically?

Lots of pieces
As we move ahead, the attempt to unionize Northwestern football and basketball players will be rife with confusion and downright messiness.

— As a private school, Northwestern is one of 17 to which the regional NLRB ruling applies. When the UI is asked about it, the response is simply: “No comment. It doesn’t apply to us.” Will athletes in public schools follow Northwestern’s lead?

— What about all those states with multiple athletic programs and varying regulations relating to unions?

— The NCAA sets rules for an even playing field among groups of its members. How could you have Northwestern and other private schools, if they so vote, being paid salaries and the others not?

— How will the IRS rule on taxes if student-athletes become salaried? Would the four-year cost of education at Northwestern — for scholarships worth perhaps $280,000 — require a tax amounting to one of those years?

— If the football and basketball players are salaried, can’t we safely predict how the women championing Title IX will respond?

— How far can we go in separating sports based on crowd appeal?

There are far more questions at this point than anyone has answers for.

But it should be noted that the major schools — the ones able to afford it — are already taking steps toward resolving at least some Northwestern concerns.

And this move was in the embryo stages before Kain Colter and the Wildcats initiated their movement.

Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at ltate@news-gazette.com.