The decision was months in the making, and when board members at the State Employees Association of North Carolina voted last week on whether to offer membership to scholarship athletes at state schools, the result was unanimous.
Fifty-nine votes for and none against, said Toni Davis, a spokeswoman for SEANC. No athletes have joined the association yet, Davis said, but the association’s hope is in time they will join, and SEANC will become their voice amid a changing landscape in college sports.
SEANC’s decision to allow athletes to join comes amid a time of wide-ranging discussion about the rights of college athletes. The thought of compensating athletes beyond their scholarships – always a topic of debate – has gained momentum amid lucrative TV rights contracts that brought an infusion of money in college sports.
And in March, a federal labor official ruled that football players at Northwestern could create the nation’s first union for college athletes. That ruling is being appealed to the National Labor Relations Board.
The Northwestern case inspired SEANC to act, Davis said, and influenced its decision to invite athletes to join.
“If (college athletes) were going to head in this direction of being represented,” Davis said, “we wanted to make sure that in North Carolina that the student-athletes knew they’d be welcomed with open arms into the State Employees Association of North Carolina.”
SEANC represents a wide range of state employees and advocates. It is affiliated with unions and sometimes is called a union, but it does not have collective bargaining power.
The association’s ruling will effectively allow it to treat scholarship athletes at North Carolina’s 17 state schools – including North Carolina and N.C. State – as state employees. What that means for the athletes, though, remains unclear.
Debbie Yow, the athletic director at N.C. State, said she was too unfamiliar with SEANC’s decision to comment. Yow has been a proponent of providing athletes with financial support beyond their scholarships.
“It's still the right path to follow to help the student-athletes,” she said.
SEANC’s first step, Davis said, was to allow athletes to join, and now they can for $9 per month. The organization will form a plan on how to represent athletes.
“It’s a membership-driven association,” Davis said. “(So) when the student scholarship athletes join, they’re going to let us know what their concerns are. So we’re not going to be going to them with a set of clearly-defined problems to say, ‘We’re going to solve these problems for you.’
“We’re looking for the athletes to let us know how they would like for us to help.”
It’s unclear exactly how SEANC might serve college athletes, but Bob Orr, a former state Supreme Court justice, speculated that the organization could help athletes in a variety of ways – from workers’ compensation issues to representation in NCAA eligibility matters.
Orr helped represent former North Carolina football player Michael McAdoo in his legal fight to regain his eligibility after he lost it in 2010 during UNC’s academic fraud scandal, which led to a postseason ban and other NCAA penalties. In the time since, Orr has become an advocate for the rights of college athletes.
He said he was “totally in favor” of SEANC’s decision to allow athletes to join, and Orr said he shared discussions with Dana Cope, SEANC’s executive director, about opening the organization’s membership to athletes.
“I think it’s appropriate,” Orr said. “It’s needed. It provides a vehicle for a voice for the young people playing college sports, and it’s not as complicated or narrow as the Northwestern football team union (case), which is going to end up in (prolonged) process and is at least initially limited to that one group.”
SEANC’s decision could result in legal challenges, though Orr said college athletes should have a legal right to join and pay membership dues.
“I wouldn’t think that there would be any legal issues over the right of a student to join SEANC or any other membership association,” Orr said. “The question then ultimately becomes the specific issues. Take workers’ compensation, for example.”
Orr used a hypothetical example of a college football player with career-threatening knee injury to illustrate his point. In a case like that, Orr said, SEANC could help the athlete find recourse.
“I’m 20 years old, and I’m never going to have a good right knee, and probably will have to have knee replacement at a certain point in time,” Orr said. “What rights do I have? What can I do? Now they’ve got somebody to turn to that has lawyers, has financial advisers … to say, ‘All right – here are some options.’”
Orr acknowledged that scenario is a long way from becoming reality. The first step, he said, would be to spread word that SEANC is now open to athletes.
Staff writer Joe Giglio contributed to this story.