Greeson: Even if no union allowed, change coming to college sports

Greeson: Even if no union allowed, change coming to college sports

February 24th, 2014 by Jay Greeson in Sports - Columns

Change is coming to the courts and fields of college sports, and that change will be ushered through the courts and filings of our legal system.

Last week, Northwestern University quarterback Kain Colter testified before the National Labor Relations Board, saying that football is a job and that college football players are employees of the university.

In what ESPN legal expert Lester Munson termed a "hopeful" first day for players, Colter repeatedly said football was a job and that his scholarship and stipend were paychecks. In fact, the legal representatives of his university even altered their argument, saying that the NLRB could view athletes as employees -- something that Northwestern's legal team steadfastly fought until this week -- but if they are employees, they are simply "temporary employees." As Munson noted, temporary employees are not permitted to form a union under our national labor laws.

While Northwestern coaches testified against change in Chicago -- including head coach Pat Fitzgerald forcefully stating his opposition -- Georgia football coach Mark Richt said last week that a complete overhaul could come before his current recruiting class is done with their eligibility.

"I don't know if you can unionize a thing that's not a workplace. These guys are students," Richt told "Press Row" on ESPN 105.1 FM. "They are putting work in obviously, but I think sometimes people don't understand education and the value of a degree.

"We worked hard to getting players as much as we can toward the cost of attendance, and we had a situation where everyone was going to get a couple extra thousand dollars a semester, and that got shot down because some schools couldn't afford that."

Still, whether schools can afford an extra line item on a scholarship may not be up to them in the years ahead. Colter and Co. are asking permission to unionize. Ed O'Bannon and his class-action cronies have been granted permission to continue their legal tug of war with EA Sports and the NCAA.

And the fact that the Northwestern legal team already is changing strategy speaks volumes about the seriousness of this suit and raises a potential disaster that could change the face of one of college football's biggest growth areas.

Granted, the change in strategy -- saying players possibly could be seen as employees but as temporary employees they can't form a union -- could prove to be effective long term. If the NLRB views college eligibility as temporary, the union issue is dead. But that debate -- whether college football players are temporary -- is also complicated and layered.

Yes, college scholarships are issued on a yearly basis, and that screams temporary, and college players have a four-to-six-year maximum time frame. But compare that to the NFL, which also has a lot of one-year deals and has an average career expectancy of between three and four years, and remember that the NFL has a union.

If the NLRB determines that college players are temporary employees, the recruiting process could be completely overhauled. If our national board of labor relations determines college football players in particular and college athletes in general to be temporary employees, the next wave in recruiting could be a Temp Athletics Agency that will for a price connect players and schools.

Heck, this could be the step to pay players on a per-sport basis if a sliding scale is set for the various sports and the various degrees of talent in said sports. It's a move that more than likely eventually will come because of the growing divide between the haves and have-nots in college sports and the different hurdles that apply to the varying classes in the modern-day college athletic caste system.

"There's a possibility of those schools that can afford it may break off from the NCAA, and you can legislate according to more like teams. Then I think you may see some things that might help," Richt told Press Row.

"I think you could see that happen within five years. I think so. I don't know exactly what that would look like, but I do think it's hard to set rules for schools that have all type of different issues because of where they are in enrollment, fan base, stadium size, whatever it is. We try to make a one size fit all when there really are certain like teams that ought to be grouped together and make the decisions that are the best for those teams."

Oh, yes, change is coming.