One Saturday last September, about 10 players on the University of Georgia and Georgia Tech football teams stepped onto the field with a three-letter message written on their wrist tape or other gear: APU.
Indecipherable to most, it was the first hint locally of a revolution in college athletics.
The initials stood for “All Players United,” a rallying cry for reform on issues such as player compensation and health. The local players and some at Northwestern University near Chicago were the only ones known to take part that day in the subtle protest, which was orchestrated by a fledgling national college players organization and drew limited attention.
But the whisper created by the group six months ago became screaming headlines last week. The College Athletes Players Association helped to persuade the National Labor Relations Board regional director in Chicago that Northwestern players are employees of the school and, as such, have the right to form a union and bargain collectively. That NLRB ruling, along with three current federal lawsuits challenging college sports’ economic model, signal unprecedented push-back by athletes against a system that generates billions of dollars for the NCAA and its member schools, makes multi-millionaires of many coaches, yet caps players’ “compensation” at tuition, room, board, fees and books.
How the multiple challenges might reshape college sports is still up in the air. Some wonder if the day will come when players can go on strike, or if the pending lawsuits might lead to players being paid based on market value. The questions could linger for months, perhaps years, and some fans are worried.
Jim Todd, who makes annual donations to UGA’s athletics program and has had football season tickets for about 10 years, would want no part of a college sports model with unions and pay for play.
“I would cease my donations and give up my tickets immediately because I just don’t want to be a part of it,” Todd said.
He believes free college educations are fair compensation for even the top players as they prepare for potentially lucrative pro careers.
In the Georgia football team’s locker room, before practice late last week, players perused a survey that showed college football requires as much time from them as most people spend on their jobs.
“I think we should … get paid for it,” said UGA linebacker Ramik Wilson, the SEC’s leading tackler last season. “It’d be nice to have a little extra money to buy something nice for myself – some nice shoes, some nice clothes, some extra food and groceries for the room.”
It is a point often made by college athletes, in words or deeds.
In 2010, Georgia star wide receiver A.J. Green broke NCAA rules by selling his Independence Bowl jersey for $1,000 to raise “extra cash,” as he put it at the time, for spring break. The NCAA — which governs college athletics and makes the rules on what compensation players are allowed to receive — punished Green with a four-game suspension.
While last week’s NLRB ruling, even if upheld on appeal, would apply only to private universities, the three federal lawsuits could affect all NCAA members.
The most advanced case, brought by former UCLA basketball player Ed O’Bannon, is scheduled for trial in June in California. It seeks to overturn NCAA rules that forbid student-athletes from being paid for use of their names, images and likenesses.
Two other antitrust cases, both brought this year against the NCAA and the five biggest conferences as potential class actions, contend the rules capping student-athlete compensation at the value of a full scholarship are illegal.
One of the suits seeks damages based on the total costs of college attendance. The other, filed by a high-profile sports labor attorney, suggests that a free market should set the players’ value. Among the plaintiffs in that suit is Clemson defensive back Martin Jenkins, from Roswell.
Players — and lawyers — have gotten more aggressive about challenging the NCAA’s long-entrenched economic system as money permeates college sports.
Thirteen athletic departments had revenue of more than $100 million last year; UGA’s had almost $97 million. Seventeen football coaches, including seven in the Southeastern Conference, made more than $3 million last year. And the reported numbers are staggering on television contracts: a 14-year, $10.8 billion deal on the NCAA men’s basketball tournament and a 10-year, $7.3 billion deal on the new College Football Playoff.
The College Athletes Players Association, which petitioned the NLRB on behalf of the Northwestern players, says its goals include reducing the risk of concussions, increasing the value of athletic scholarships, allowing players to be paid for commercial sponsorships, improving graduation rates and securing due process rights for players accused of rules violations.
Although the NCAA and the major conferences have lined up against the NLRB ruling, there is support among college athletics’ power brokers for parts of the player group’s platform. The Southeastern Conference, for example, is pushing hard for a rule change that would permit schools to pay athletes stipends of several thousand dollars per year for costs of attendance not covered by scholarships.
Go much further than that, some fans argue, and major-college sports would lose their last vestiges of amateurism.
But the NLRB director in Chicago, Peter Ohr, cited the time spent on college football in his ruling that Northwestern’s 85 scholarship players are employees.
He found that players devote 50 to 60 hours per week to football-related activities during training camp and 40 to 50 hours per week during the season.
“Not only is this more time than many undisputed full-time employees work at their jobs, it is also many more hours than the players spend on their studies,” Ohr wrote.
His ruling noted that players “are under strict and exacting control by their employer throughout the entire year.”
Northwestern plans to appeal to the full NLRB board in Washington. If that is denied, the university eventually could take the case to the U.S. Court of Appeals in Chicago or Washington. The litigation could last for years.
But David Murphy, a Palo Alto, Calif.-based labor and employment partner with law firm Dorsey & Whitney, believes the NLRB ruling will be a wake-up call for the NCAA.
“I think the single most important thing about it is that it narrows the time window for the NCAA to take steps to advance the players’ interests,” said Murphy, who is following the case closely. “Outside forces are now intruding, and I think within the next year or two there will be significant developments at the NCAA level to try to get control of this back.”
Murphy said that if student-athletes are employees, many issues in federal and state law would come into play, including minimum wage, workplace safety and workman’s compensation laws.
And then there’s this: If athletes are employees, their scholarships could be taxable income.
Also, paying football and men’s basketball players “could have a chilling effect”on the viability of other men’s and women’s college sports because they generally are funded with the profits of football and basketball, Mercer University economist Roger Tutterow said.
Georgia wide receiver Chris Conley, a member of the NCAA’s student-athlete advisory committee, said much more than money is at stake.
“That’s what people don’t understand on the outside,” Conley said. “They look at this like athletes are just trying to get paid. It’s an issue that spans more things – time constraints, health, concussions.”
“It’s student-athlete well-being. It’s student-athlete experience.”
Interestingly, David Andrews – one of five Georgia offensive linemen with “APU” on their gear last September — seems cool to recent developments. He said he doesn’t want to be a UGA employee for a pragmatic reason: “You can get fired.”
Staff writers Chip Towers and Leon Stafford contributed to this article.