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College athletes’ fate up in the air

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Classified newspaper sections around the country might soon be filled by universities seeking help.

No, not professors.

HELP WANTED — Big, young man, lots of muscle, 40-yard dash speed in 4.5 range, book smarts, team player, willing to sustain violent contact, good pay and benefits, send resume to University of Notre Dame football.

Such could be life after Peter Sung Ohr of the National Labor Relations Board Region 13 granted Northwestern University football players the right to unionize on Wednesday.

Everyone associated with college sports will be watching the expected legal battles that are likely to materialize as Ohr’s decision is appealed, challenged and studied.

While on the surface it might seem the Northwestern unionizing attempt is simply a case of players wanting to be paid for playing football, it is much more.

Universities have been slow to react to complaints by players and their families that they receive little compensation for injuries which often affect the athlete for a lifetime.

Another major concern is that the athletes can’t benefit from their images that are being used to generate millions of dollars.

These are legitimate concerns.

When Ohr ruled the players are employees of the university, it opened the can of worms. Now things are about to get messy, and complicated.

The universities, in general, don’t want to be classified as employers but want to act like they are. For example, the athletes are told they can’t transfer to another “job” without penalty.

The athletes want to be paid like employees yet don’t want to be treated like them (being fired for lack of production, for instance).

It’s one of those instances where everyone involved might be better off if they simply sat down and compromised.

Now it might be too late for that to happen.

At one time, I would have been squarely behind the universities, saying that they were offering, basically, a free education in exchange for an athlete representing that university on the field.

If you have played athletics in high school, you might understand the feeling I used to hold. I didn’t want the fun to stop.

Playing football, or basketball or baseball, wasn’t a job. It was a game. An employee?

I remember my dad telling me, “Play sports for as long as you can because you have the rest of your life to work.”

College allowed me to extend my sports career. It wasn’t a job; it was a privilege. An employee? Are you kidding me?

The initial thought at colleges and universities 100 years ago was to enhance student life with intercollegiate athletics in a learning environment. When you look at today’s story (D1) about Columbus East graduate Emilee Buchanan continuing her soccer career at NCAA Division III Thomas More, it is obvious the same mission exists today in certain instances.

However, far too often, college athletics has become big business. Whose fault is that?

I am no longer in the “Just shut up and play” camp.

I realize most universities want to earn big bucks in their high revenue sports not because someone is getting rich, but to support all those other athletic programs that don’t generate any income.

Even so, it was only a matter of time before those athletes in the high revenue sports were going to feel cheated with so much money changing hands. With their bodies getting destroyed to wear a school’s colors, it was only a matter of time before they wanted a better medical plan.

And guess what? They are right.

My hope is Ohr’s decision gets overturned, and universities begin measures to pump funds into medical issues, such as concussions, and look into better medical plans for the athletes.

The NCAA also should allow athletes to get a share of the profits if their image is used commercially. Will this cause an inequity among programs across the nation? Sure. Too bad. The NCAA will have to deal with those consequences.

If Ohr’s decision is upheld, and more athletes at private universities follow suit to become unionized, it might become a “be careful what you wish for” scenario.

The scholarships could go away and be replaced by a pay scale. What if the going rate for a backup offensive guard is $15 an hour, at a university where tuition costs alone are $40,000 a year? Thank you, players union.

Or what if universities decide to dump athletics all together, just because it’s an expensive pain?

The important legal marathon has begun and the results might well change our sports world as we know it.

Jay Heater is the Republic sports editor. He can be reached at or 379-5632.

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