Greeson: Athletes as employees is a dark path

Greeson: Athletes as employees is a dark path

March 27th, 2014 by Jay Greeson in Sports - Columns

The entire sporting world knows Peter Ohr today.

He's the regional director in Chicago of the National Labor Relations Board. He's the guy that made national news on Wednesday. He more than likely is decent fellow who likes Pat Sajak, I must say.

And he's the guy that took the first swing that could forever reshape -- and potentially destroy -- the NCAA.

Ohr ruled Wednesday afternoon that Northwestern football players are employees of the university. He said they have the right to vote to unionize. He issued a decision in more than a couple of dozen pages Wednesday. It may as well have been at its smallest a tome-like rewrite of the NCAA's future and at its biggest could serve as a death sentence with an exclamation point to the governing body of college athletics. His decision was based on on his view of the labor law but it will change history and for all intents and purposes, he might as well have melted Roger Staubach's Heisman and kicked Roy Kramer in the shin and swept Dean Smith's knee.

The college sports we knew and the consternation about secondary violations and slow decision making has been met with the sobering and nuclear news that student-athletes are considered student employees.

Yes, employees. Employees like you and me. Employees that are officially working rather than working to get better, on the clock rather managing the clock. Employees that likley will have to pay taxes, and do their work for the returns -- i.e. payment -- that is the scholarship they are given.

Even the phrase employee-athletes makes the dingy abyss that has become major college athletics feel more dirty. Forget the debate or the discussion about the future model of stipends or cost of attendance, this is the now and the now is a bigger question than we could have imagined.

Plus, the decision to call players employees only gives more credence to the litany of lawsuits that are circling like the billion-dollar buzzards above the NCAA's fresh carcass.

The NCAA issued a statement saying they strongly disagree with the decision and hinted that the decision would "throw away" the current system that has allowed "millions" of student athletes to attend college. They will appeal and that appeal will be followed by more appeals, so who knows the timetable in which this will be ultimately decided.

That timetable is just one of the myriad of questions that this decision opens, and each new possibility opens another wildfire chain of potential follow-up scenarios. And few of them seem familiar or positive.

Will the athletes pay taxes on the scholarship? Will the athletes be allowed to hire agents since they are no longer amateurs? Will they unionize, and if they do will they potentially have a work stoppage? Will a demeaning head coach be in violation of work-place protocol? "Uh, coach, I feel your tone is inappropriate and I feel harrassed." How will that play?

It feels wrong for those of us who love college sports. We know the system is flawed and that college sports needed an overhaul that may or may not have included the NCAA. We were prepared for that reconstruction and reworking the system, but calling the players employees rewrites the narrative around which the system must be molded.

It feels wrong on its face, even as we lament the lost innocence of college athletics that was distorted if not destroyed long ago whether we want to believe it or not.

At its core we know the decision makes practical sense, at least for the football and men's college basketball programs that are lining the pockets of every person and program in college sports. Those athletes are working to make themselves better and in the course of that work are generating record profits for everyone involved other than themselves.

The logic is understandable even if the outcome finally makes us fret about the future, especially since the term employee makes it feel real, even if it is the truth that has become undeniable.

And for the athletes, it may be the classic case of be careful what you ask for.

The tax question becomes a clear hurdle for the athletes, considering a 25 percent tax on a $60,000 annual scholarship to a place like Northwestern comes to $15,000 a year. Of course, what about the athletes in nonrevenue sports who are viewed equally under Title IX as the big-money football and hoops stars?

The questions abound, and the answers will be slow to come.

We do know this, though. Peter Ohr changed the world of college athletics today, and it will be a work in progress for years to come for the bosses and the employees.