Pay for play could be disastrous

There’s a dark side to paying student-athletes to play college football.

Collective bargaining.

According to Michael Buckner, an attorney specializing in NCAA enforcement investigations and compliance issues, paying student-athletes could result in the formation of a players union.

And that could lead to affiliation with powerful existing unions such as the Teamsters, as well as possible strikes to try to gain a substantial piece of college football’s financial pie.

That pie is "in the billions of dollars" according to Forbes sports business analyst Kristi Dosh.

"Profits for just the schools broke the $1 billion mark in 2009," Dosh said.

With BCS conferences making lucrative deals with networks for broadcasting rights, the pie keeps getting bigger. Since the student-athletes can’t legally grab a piece of it, many have turned to street agents, runners and boosters to supplement their income.

If the rules-makers can’t stop a kid from trading pants for tattoos, how can they expect to prevent an 18-year-old — with maybe $100 in his checking account — from listening to a union rep’s lure of riches?

"A strike by college athletes would make the current work stoppages in the NFL and NBA look like child’s play, and would impact more people and communities," Buckner said.

"The average number of people at college football games on any given Saturday is five million," Dosh said. That’s a significant jump from the NFL’s average stadium gameday attendance of 1.1 million.

"Aside from the money generated just on game days, there’s advertising, television revenues and licensing. The number of towns and enterprises [a work stoppage] touches would have much more of a far-reaching impact [than an NFL lockout]."

Penn State University’s surrounding area is an example of the adverse effect a work stoppage could have on a local economy. According to the 2010 census, there are 42,034 residents in State College, Pa., but the Nittany Lions’ Beaver Stadium can swell to over 107,000 fans on game days.

Jose Felix, an employee at Marriott’s Residence Inn State College, said half of the hotel’s yearly profit comes from college football season, which is roughly six weekends a year.

Penn State football season is to them what December is to retailers. You can get a room right now for $169, but on game days, "it starts at $349 and for bigger games, $399 and up," Felix said. "You have to call at least a year in advance for reservations."

How could paying student-athletes potentially lead to them unionizing?

"If the National Labor Relations Act or Congress defines college athletes as employees and universities are employers (and also rules that other provisions of the National Labor Relations Act apply to the relationship), then student-athletes would enjoy numerous rights, including the right to collectively bargain," Buckner said.

"Receiving additional money does not by itself make a student-athlete an employee. Federal labor law must be applied to determine if student-athletes would be considered employees of their respective universities. Previous decisions of the National Labor Relations Board and federal courts have not defined the relationship between universities and college athletes as an employer-employee relationship."

But those decisions didn’t reflect student-athletes being paid, other than receiving scholarships.

To unionize, student-athletes would have to file a petition with the NLRB to start organized labor proceedings, and 30 percent of them would have to attest that they were interested in forming a union, according to Nancy Cleeland, Director of Public Affairs for the NLRB.

If the student-athletes’ financial-aid contracts were separate from their compensation contracts, becoming designated as employees would be easier to accomplish.

And that would open the door to forming a union.

Which could then open the door to organized labor making inroads into college football.

Dan Stormer, a top attorney in California specializing in labor and employment issues, when asked whether existing unions would be interested in college football, said "Absolutely. … It could be a teachers’ assistant union, it could be the Teamsters … it could be anything," he said.

A college football strike would have a snowball effect on the rest of college sports, which rely heavily on football to fund their individual programs.

"You take football out of the equation, and the athletic departments of BCS conferences can’t function," Dosh said.

There are still some issues that could stop the pay-for-play movement.

The biggest hurdle is Title IX, a federal law which states, in part, that no person under an educational umbrella shall be denied benefits on the basis of gender.

"Any plan to pay student-athletes would have to adhere to federal law," Buckner said. If football players are paid, then somewhere, student-athletes in a women’s sport will also have to be compensated.

The other big issue is the difficulty some smaller schools would face in coming up with the money to pay student-athletes.

"The Big Ten Conference discussed a proposal that would pay student-athletes to help cover living expenses on top of their scholarships during the league’s 2011 spring meetings," Buckner said. "Unfortunately, not all schools could afford to do so."

The prospect of a college football work stoppage is a fan’s worst nightmare. Hearing crickets chirp on fall Saturdays across the country from Eugene, Ore., to Norman, Okla., to South Bend, Ind., to Baton Rouge, La., should give the pay-to-play movement pause.

Be careful what you wish for.