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Scholarships sufficient compensation for student-athletes, some say

NLRB decision would allow athletes at private universities to unionize

College athletes should not be paid salaries or stipends because the scholarships they already receive are enough, some students at Miami University in Oxford told the Journal-News a day after a controversial decision was made that could clear the way for athletes to unionize.

A regional director of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ruled Wednesday that football players at Northwestern University should be allowed to form a union — the nation’s first comprised of college athletes. In a 24-page decision, Peter Ohr wrote that Northwestern is an employer and all its scholarship football players are employees who are eligible to unionize and collectively bargain with the school.

While this decision only applies to private schools, such as Northwestern, because the federal labor agency does not have jurisdiction over public universities. But experts said Wednesday’s decision is the “first domino to fall” and that teams at schools — both public and private — could eventually follow the Wildcats’ lead.

Northwestern has said it plans to appeal the decision.

National reaction to the decision has been mixed, with pro-union activists cheering it and and critics saying it hurts college sports. On the Oxford campus of Miami University, some students had strong opinions about whether college athletes should be paid to play.

Gerald Yearwood, a senior director in the office of diversity affairs at Miami, said he opposes the idea of student-athletes being allowed to form unions and possibly being paid. Yearwood is a former college athlete himself, having paid Division II basketball at Saint Augustine College in Raleigh, N.C.

“You want to play college football or college sports; you make that decision,” Yearwood said. “The university offers you the opportunity to participate in intercollegiate athletics and pays you by way of scholarship dollars.”

That form of compensation, Yearwood said, is enough.

“Most student athletes have a zero balance” when they leave the university, he said. “Regular students don’t leave with a zero balance; they leave with owing a lot of money.”

Tiara Welch, a junior at Miami University, said student-athletes “get a lot of benefits from what they already do.”

“I feel like giving them money for what they signed up to do isn’t really fair to other students,” Welch said. “They chose to be a student-athlete, and I feel that it should represent exactly what they are: student comes first; athlete comes second.”

Ohr, of the NLRB, said in his ruling that the Northwestern players “fall squarely” within the broad definition of an employee.

Under U.S. law, an employee is regarded as someone who, among other things, receives compensation for a service and is under the strict, direct control of managers. In the case of the Northwestern players, coaches are the managers, and scholarships are a form of compensation, Ohr concluded.

Miami University senior Dionte Allen said he can’t make up his mind on how to feel about this controversial issue. He said if student-athletes are compensated, it should be put into a trust and given to them after they graduate.

“They (college athletes) put in more than the average student. They wake up early for exercises, they go to class, they go to practice and everything but to get paid for what they were being scouted to anyway,” Allen said.

Miami University spokeswoman Claire Wagner released the following statement Thursday on the NLRB’s decision: “It’s important to remember that the ruling regarding college athletes as employees is being appealed, and that as it stands, it only applies to private universities. Further, every school with intercollegiate athletics has different teams, different scholarship programs, different schedules of participation. It’s too soon to say what affect the NLRB ruling may have on college athletics.”

Critics have argued that giving college athletes employee status and allowing them to unionize could hurt college sports in numerous ways, including raising the prospect of strikes by disgruntled players or lockouts by athletic departments.

Supporters of the union bid argued the university ultimately treats football as more important than academics for scholarship players. Ohr sided with the players.

“The record makes clear that the employer’s scholarship players are identified and recruited in the first instance because of their football prowess and not because of their academic achievement in high school,” Ohr wrote.

He also noted that among the evidence presented by Northwestern, “no examples were provided of scholarship players being permitted to miss entire practices and/or games to attend their studies.”

The ruling described how the life of a Northwestern football player is far more regimented than that of a typical student, down to requirements about what they can eat and whether they can live off campus or purchase a car. At times, players put 50 or 60 hours a week into football, Ohr added.

Alan Cubbage, Northwestern’s vice president for university relations, said in a statement that while the school respects “the NLRB process and the regional director’s opinion, we disagree with it.”

NCAA President Mark Emmert has pushed for a $2,000-per-player stipend to help athletes defray some expenses. Critics say that is not nearly enough, considering players help bring in millions of dollars to their schools and conferences.

In a written statement, the NCAA said it disagreed with the notion that student-athletes are employees.

“We frequently hear from student-athletes, across all sports, that they participate to enhance their overall college experience and for the love of their sport, not to be paid,” the NCAA said.

All of the big NCAA conferences, including the SEC, also disagreed with the decision.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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