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Unionizing College Athletes: Where Is The Line?

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State schools in North Carolina now have the opportunity to join a union, which creates some concerns.

Give An Inch, Take A Mile?

Although the College Athletes Players Association (CAPA) says its main focus is obtaining coverage for sports-related medical expenses, the organization has quite the list of ideas. CAPA would like to create trust funds to help former players after they graduate, reduce head injuries by mandating independent concussion experts on sidelines, and allow players to pursue commercial sponsorships.

If unions provide such benefits for state schools, will private schools suffer?

The obvious answer seems to be yes. Recruits would be attracted to financial benefits and future negotiations.

Athletes at union schools may end up with much better conditions, from fewer practice hours and negotiated stipends to the extremes of endorsement and memorabilia rights, a salary and due process regarding team rules and drug testing.

The NCAA currently bans schools from providing such benefits, but all of this discussion already has led to a rule change last month regarding food allowances for students.

Where does the NCAA draw the line?

Possible Changes

Virtually everything is on the table. The changes would be determined by negotiations between each school and each union.

Some of the mandatory negotiation subjects during collective bargaining include wages, rates of pay, incentive pay, overtime pay, paid holidays, paid vacations, severance pay, bonuses, pensions, health and welfare insurance plans, stock purchase plans, merit wage increases, housing, meals, hours and work schedules, grievance procedures, workloads, sick days, work rules, drug testing and health and safety issues.

It's unlikely unionization will lead to immediate payment for athletes.

But the union's decision to open itself up to student-athletes may have little effect. It's unclear whether students will line up to join, and even if they do, in states that encompass most of the Southeastern Conference schools, union rules are very restrictive.

Changes Could Create Exclusion

There are divisions that exist within big-time programs. Football and men's basketball generates nearly all the revenue and essentially provide for every other program, from women's basketball to baseball to tennis.

What happens to other students who aren't in revenue-earning sports? What happens in women's sports? 

Affordability An Issue

The answer: Most likely no one. Player unions would be a disaster for universities, for college sports fans and even for student-athletes. If it comes about, even the most valuable athletes could be worse off.

Turning student-athletes into paid employees could be detrimental to college campuses. Only about 10 percent of Division I college sports programs turn a profit, and most of them lose money. Changing scholarship dollars into salary could increase the amount schools have to spend on sports, since earnings are taxed and scholarships are not. The university would have to spend more just to match the value of a scholarship.

Many schools recently have made cuts within their athletic programs. Adding expenses would only pressure them to make more.

Ending The Debate

Players at these schools have no right to complain. Their mandatory practices and games are major distractions when it comes to attending class and engaging in their school work. But the answer is not to organize and increase their obligation to football or to hand them trust fund money after graduation. This would only lessen the priority of their school work. Think how much harder it would be to balance school if athletes were paid to play.

If players are good enough to earn a living while in college, let them go pro. Very few, however, are that good. At the college level, even the highest-ranked teams send few players and of those even fewer make it off the bench.

Strong athletic departments and universities provide athletes the chance to reach their full athletic potential and prepare them for life after the fans are gone. For the vast majority of student athletes, that life begins when they walk across the stage. Providing athletes with money won't benefit them if they don't know how to spend it.

For the exceptional few who turn pro, post-sport life begins soon enough. The average length of a pro football career varies depending on your source, but the consensus is between three and six years. Even to those talented enough to turn pro should not be overly focused on their athletic career: Be smart and earn a degree.