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Good Case That College Athletes Are Employees

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UConn Huskies guards Ryan Boatright, left, and Shabazz Napier share the championship trophy after the April 7 victory over Kentucky. (Richard Messina / Hartford Courant / April 16, 2014)

Last week, third-graders in Guilford gave me a spontaneous round of applause.

Why? Because the teacher introduced me as being from the University of Connecticut, where excellence in basketball has raised my profile, along with that of everyone else in the state. Our players look so good that amateurs like me can easily mistake them for professionals, which is what some people would argue they are.

A ruling March 26 by Peter Sung Ohr, the regional director of the National Labor Relations Board in Chicago, heightened the debate over college athletes as professionals. Ohr said scholarship football players at Northwestern University are employees of the university, rather than mainly students. His 24-page decision ignited an alternative version of March Madness that is a chilling look at what takes place behind the scenes, and helped explain why players may vote to unionize, as allowed by the decision.

Ohr noted that recruits must sign a binding contract for athletic services before being admitted as students. The priority is clear. It's athlete first, student second.

He wrote of wages and benefits. Scholarship players at Northwestern typically earn about $61,000 per year of in-kind benefits such as tuition, books, room, board, medical coverage, clothing, travel, lodging, meals and incidentals. And if they enroll for summer school, the pay rises to $76,000. This pay scale exceeds the mean annual wage of $53,760 for workers in Connecticut.

For this, the athletes have a work schedule exceeding a 9-to-5 job. During the regular season of about 12 games, players must work 40 to 50 hours per week on "countable athletically related activities," exclusive of coursework. Team obligations span all but about nine weeks a year, including Christmas.

Ohr quotes the "common law definition" of employee used by the Internal Revenue Service and explains why Northwestern football players meet it point by point.

These conditions of employment, Ohr said, limit freedoms that other students take for granted. Coaches are bosses controlling what their players say, where they can live, what they can drive, their travel destinations, their use of the Internet and other media, and their use of alcohol and drugs. Gambling is prohibited. Ditto for promoting themselves. Meetings are mandatory. Curfews and dress codes are strict.

Northwestern benefits greatly from the historic prestige of Big Ten football and understandably strongly disagreed with Ohr's ruling, which it will appeal. The NCAA benefits from the power and money involved and it "strongly disagree[s] with the notion that student-athletes are employees," wrote its chief legal officer. NCAA President Mark Emmert, a former provost at UConn, said: "This would blow up the current model of collegiate athletics."

Perhaps he's right. Perhaps the present model has reached a natural tipping point. The NCAA originated in 1905 to protect students from football injuries, before the era of broadcast radio. Since then, the NCAA has evolved into a sprawling bureaucracy of cabinets and committees that govern the way schools profit from electronic distribution of games.

As a college student, I took five required courses in physical education, played intramural softball, was recruited for varsity tennis and enthusiastically cheered the other varsity teams, as I do the UConn teams today. As a professor, I've taught hundreds of student athletes, many who excelled in both domains, and none of whom I remember playing a revenue-producing sport.

The hotly contested economic football of the employee status of the Northwestern Wildcats will work its way through the federal courts. I'll watch from the sidelines and root for my version of reality based on the "duck test" — if something quacks like an employee, looks like an employee and swims like an employee, it's probably an employee.

I'll end with an interesting statistical comparison. Overall, the Wildcats were academic champions last year with a grade average of 3.024, the highest graduation rate in the country (97 percent) and the highest academic progress rate (996/1000). Simultaneously, they're at the bottom of their 2013 conference standings, with 1 win and 7 losses. Could this spread be telling us something?

Robert M. Thorson is a professor at the University of Connecticut's College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. His column appears every other Thursday. He can be reached at profthorson@yahoo.com.

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