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New coalition of professors to fight for pay for college athletes

UNC-Chapel Hill whistleblower Mary Willingham and Richard Southall attend the premier of “Schooled: The Price of College Sports” on Oct. 8, 2013, in New York City. Southall, a former UNC-Chapel Hill professor who leads the College Sport Research Institute, is also one of the leaders of the College Athletes Rights & Empowerment Faculty Coalition.
UNC-Chapel Hill whistleblower Mary Willingham and Richard Southall attend the premier of “Schooled: The Price of College Sports” on Oct. 8, 2013, in New York City. Southall, a former UNC-Chapel Hill professor who leads the College Sport Research Institute, is also one of the leaders of the College Athletes Rights & Empowerment Faculty Coalition. GETTY FILE PHOTO

A new coalition of more than 20 professors from schools that include Maryland, Michigan State and Georgia is backing the movement to pay college athletes for their services on the football field and basketball court.

The College Athletes Rights & Empowerment Faculty Coalition has no money and no plans to form a nonprofit organization. But its members on Thursday launched a grass-roots campaign to convince lawmakers, college administrators and the public that college athletes should be treated as employees for the central role they play in bringing millions of dollars to universities and the NCAA.

One of its leaders is Richard Southall, a former UNC-Chapel Hill professor who leads the College Sport Research Institute, which moved to the University of South Carolina in 2013. The institute produces research on the academic progress of athletes and the impacts of big money in college sports.

Many of the faculty in the coalition are at Division I schools in sports management programs that are popular with athletes. Southall said those professors’ contact with athletes helped form their support for paying them.

“These are faculty who have come to understand the academic and economic nature of the system, and the really fundamental mistreatment of college athletes who are in football and basketball,” Southall said. “The basic position we are taking is that these athletes are employees and deserve protection afforded to employee status.”

Two UNC professors joined the coalition shortly after it was announced, Southall said. They are Jay Smith, who has co-written a book with whistleblower Mary Willingham about the university’s academic scandal, and Jonathan Weiler, who writes about sports on his theespnwatch blog.

The coalition’s formation comes as the National Labor Relations Board is deciding whether to support a regional director’s decision to allow football players at Northwestern University to organize as employees and form a union. Last year, the regional director found that the football players were athletes first, with long hours dedicated to their sport, and students second.

Meanwhile, a federal judge in California last summer ruled in favor of paying college athletes for the use of their names, likenesses and images, though she sought to limit how much they should receive. That case is under appeal as a similar lawsuit appears headed to trial.

Support from labor

At least two groups have sprouted to help athletes get a share of the revenues from college sports TV broadcasts, endorsement deals and other sources. The United Steelworkers Union is also supporting the effort to unionize college athletes.

Representatives from those groups and Kain Colter, the former Northwestern quarterback who started the unionization effort, are coalition backers, according to a coalition release.

Colleges have become the de facto minor leagues for the NFL and NBA. Neither league has a farm system like baseball, and both prevent athletes from being drafted out of high school. Basketball players have little choice but to spend at least a year in college before they are draft eligible; football players have to spend three years.

The NCAA and its member universities contend athletes are being treated fairly. They are receiving a free college education in exchange for their play. That benefit alone is worth tens of thousands of dollars – far more at some private schools – and a college degree typically boosts average incomes.

“We strongly disagree with the notion that student-athletes are employees,” NCAA spokeswoman Stacey Osburn said in a statement. “While improvements need to be made, we do not need to completely throw away a system that has helped literally millions of students over the past decade alone attend college. We want student-athletes – most of whom will never make it to the professional leagues – focused on what matters most, namely finding success in the classroom, on the field and in life.”

The American Council on Education, which is led by Molly Corbett Broad, a former UNC system president, said treating college athletes as employees would create an “unprecedented intrusion into the educational missions of universities.”

“It would undermine education by impinging on academic freedom and would exacerbate many of the problems critics find with intercollegiate athletics,” the council said in a legal brief in support of Northwestern.

The long-running academic scandal at UNC-Chapel Hill involved fake classes that, according to a recent investigation, began after pressure from academic counselors seeking to keep athletes eligible. It has prompted two lawsuits alleging that athletes were denied a valid education. The NCAA now has 20 academic misconduct investigations underway – one of them at UNC – and is working on new regulations.

Former UNC football player Deunta Williams, who said he had been steered to the fake classes, provided a statement in support of the new coalition. He said his four years at UNC and his days now as a businessman have shown him “how legally powerless and exposed you are as a player.”

“Just a few items to consider are: free labor, free marketing and the right to sell your likeness and personality for profit to the general public. Simply by signing a letter of intent, you give these rights to your university and the NCAA,” he said.

Money for coaches, ADs

Other issues, such as potentially life-impairing injuries from concussions, are also fueling the push to pay athletes.

A 12-page position paper the coalition released Thursday cites numerous studies – some by the coalition members – that find the current system cheats athletes financially and academically. A majority of those athletes are minorities, playing for a system that rewards coaches and athletic directors who are mostly white, and produces a fan base that is largely white and male.

Southall said it will be an uphill battle to persuade those in power to change the system. After the Northwestern case surfaced, two states – Ohio and Michigan – have taken steps to deny college athletes the right to be treated as employees.

Some in Congress have drawn attention to the treatment of college athletes, but others have fought any effort at unionizing them.

One of them is U.S. Sen. Richard Burr, a Winston-Salem Republican and former football player at Wake Forest.

According to a transcript on the NCAA’s website, Burr said on the Senate floor in April that the current system works fine.

“The amazing thing to Senator (Lamar) Alexander and myself is we have this governing body today that by all practical observations has done a great job of regulating college sports,” he said. “It is the reason we have fabulous playoffs. It is the reason we have integrity in the scholarship system.”

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