What Unionizing Athletes Would Mean for College Sports

Question bout unionized college sports raises thorny issues for universities.

ByABC News
April 25, 2014, 11:08 AM

April 25, 2014— -- The Northwestern University football program generates about $30 million a year - a number that its football players may have in mind as they vote today whether to officially unionize and bargain for better benefits.

The players will be the first in the nation to become an official union if a majority of team members vote that way in a secret ballot to join the National College Players Association.

The university - as well as colleges around the country that have major sports programs - have come out against players unions.

Northwestern, which argues that students are not employees and therefore can't organize, lost its appeal with the National Labor Relations Board to quash the players' organization.

Ramogi Huma, a former college player who created the NCPA and filed the petition on behalf of the Northwestern students, said that it not looking for salaries for the athletes. Instead, it hopes to argue for better protections for athletes.

"There is no question about it, college athletes are fortunate. We have been given an opportunity to get an education while playing sports that we enjoy. However... just because we are fortunate does not mean that we should not try to minimize risks and secure basic protections," the NCPA website states.

"The NCAA tries to convince us that we have little, if anything, to complain about because we are getting a 'free ride' through college," Huma writes on the website. "This is not true. Our scholarships are not free - we WORK for them."

The NCPA says it will fight for more safety protections such as minimizing the risk of brain trauma, having universities cover medical bills for life for injuries are suffered while playing in college, and eliminate restrictions on outside employment so students can work.

As for money, the NCPA says the only thing it is seeking is a greater amount of scholarship money than the NCAA currently allows schools to give, which it says falls short by $3,000 of the true cost for students to attend the schools.

"While the NCAA's cap on athletic scholarships leaves players struggling to make ends meet, CBS is giving the NCAA almost $11 billion over 14 years just for the TV rights to the Men's Final Four Basketball Tournament," Huma writes.

Ed Butowksy, an investment strategist who specializes in managing athlete's investments, said that he doesn't think college athletes who seek salaries will get anywhere in negotiations, but those seeking something smaller - like allowances - could be successful.

"The question is will they seek salaries, and I don’t see that happening at all," Butowsky told ABC News today, citing the costs the universities incur to build up the programs, construct stadiums, and support the programs. "They're thinking of the revenue, but not the expenses."

He also pointed out that athletes would have to pay taxes on their scholarships if they are considered employees, which could increase the amount that falls to them to pay their college expenses.

Butowsky said that things like "how often they practice and what their food is like in the dorms" might be negotiable.

"One of the things people don’t realize is when the training table closes, and they're hungry at night, athletes don’t have money to get food to snack on. They don’t have any ability to go get jobs. So not all of it is about them wanting money. But it’s about, hey can I please get a job in the summer, or a job at the school. It is very hard," he said.