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On autonomy, money and unionization: Duke football responds

By Laura Keeley
lkeeley@newsobserver.com
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- Chuck Liddy
Looking for strong opinions on the future of college sports, in the business sense? Duke football doesn't have them.

With the NCAA Board of Directors’ vote to give more autonomy to the Power 5 conferences dominating the news cycle Thursday, the business of college sports was again front and center.

Duke is one of the smallest Power 5 schools – schools from the ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, SEC and Pac-12 – and, by virtue of its ACC membership and, more importantly, ACC television contract revenue (about $20.8 million last year), the Blue Devils are guaranteed a seat at the big boys’ table for years to come. And I say boys, because we’re really talking about football and men’s basketball. That’s where all the money is.

One of the main issues the Power 5 schools will tackle with their new-found power – assuming Thursday’s decision isn’t overturned in the next 60 days – will be cost of attendance, i.e., providing players with more money as part of their scholarships.

Duke’s two player representatives at last month’s ACC media days, seniors Kelby Brown and Laken Tomlinson, were asked about cost-of-attendance issues, whether student-athletes should have more of a say in these governance issues and unionization. Both will likely be captains of this year’s team and are looked at as leaders. Here are their responses:

Q: Anything about the scholarship you would like to see changed?

Brown: Man, I can’t complain. I’ve got enough money to eat, pay rent.

Q: Are there areas where you come up short money wise?

Brown: The only thing is like parking passes, but, I mean, (laughing) it’s $150 bucks a year. I wish they would pay for parking passes, maybe parking tickets, but I don’t know if we’re ever going to get that one covered (laughter).

Q: Should athletes have more of a say in how college athletics is structured and how the rules are fashioned?

Brown: I think we should have some kind of input on it just because, well – it’s hard to say, man, we’re young. Especially having a freshman guy come into a football program and think what he knows is best for him, it’s not always true.

Q: But at least maybe be more at the table?

Brown: Yeah, I think that would be good.

Q: Do you think you guys should be plugged in more to the process before decisions are made? Like, say, We’re going to change the scholarships, or we’re going to change the hours you can practice in a week?

Tomlinson: I definitely believe that athletes should have a say in that. But then again, do we have the knowledge to go ahead and suggest those changes? And do we know the consequences of making those changes? I would say that most of us do not.

Just like Northwestern unionizing and creating their thing over there, there’s a risk to doing stuff like that. I mean, if they’re educated on the risk and they’re OK with that, then, by all means, do what you must. But if you’re not educated on the risk and you expose yourself to being potentially let go from college athletics and that’s too much of a risk, then you probably shouldn’t suggest stuff like that.

Q: How much discussion has there been about unionization, with Duke being a private school?

Brown: There’s just been a lot of locker room talk, watching ESPN together. I don’t think anyone on our team would be serious enough about it to take those steps. Honestly, I was really surprised. Of all schools, it would be somewhere like Northwestern, but that’s some real stuff they did. I don’t know if we really care enough to be a part of it.

To that degree, unionizing, I don’t think guys on our team would even know where to start. I wouldn’t. But from a compensation standpoint, it definitely brought up a lot of discussion.

Q: The Northwestern thing has the potential to be extended to other private schools, which obviously Duke is. Is that something you guys have thought about or talked about at all?

Tomlinson: Obviously you have those responses to what you see on TV. And obviously you have the locker room talk where guys suggest possibilities of what could and could not happen. I don’t know. There are a lot of ways that can go. For our team, there’s too much risk in doing stuff like that. That’s my opinion.

Q: What is the risk?

Tomlinson: Being laid off. You’re, like, working as the staff for a team, and you’re getting paid for your name and stuff like that. Then again, you could get fired like any other staff member. That’s the potential risk that you pose for yourself when you’re doing something like that. Honestly, if you don’t have that much knowledge of what you’re doing, that could be really bad for you because you can get fired.

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