A labor of love? Georgia players weigh in on college athletes unionizing

The day after the National Labor Relations Board’s regional director in Chicago ruled football players at Northwestern are university employees and can form a union, Georgia tailback Keith Marshall showed teammates a study on his smartphone in the locker room.

It detailed what most on the team probably already knew: college players are spending long hours on their sport, linebacker Ramik Wilson said. He didn’t know the specific study, but CNN.com cited an NCAA study that the average time spent in-season in football, baseball and men’s basketball was about 40 hours per week.

Wilson said he’s at the football complex from 2:15 to 8 p.m. on most days and wakes up for 7 a.m. tutoring and then classes.

“We’re out here risking our bodies, going hard and practicing in the hot sun every day,” Wilson said. “I think we should get some type of reward for it and get paid for it. … We need something because any play we could tear our ACL out there or break our neck. We’re putting our life on the line for their entertainment for Saturday.”

The Northwestern case, viewed as a possible landmark decision, is being appealed by the Big Ten school to the NLRB in Washington.

“We were getting excited because they’re getting work done,” Wilson said. “Everybody’s got like $20 in our back account. Shoot, we want some steak sometime.”

The ruling’s impact could directly affect other private universities, but public universities like the University of Georgia don’t fall under the NLRB.

That doesn’t mean there won’t be impact on programs such as Georgia, said Kenneth Dau-Schmidt, a professor and labor law expert at Indiana University,

“If this is upheld on appeal and if other schools started to organize and the players at private schools got better benefits, one thing they might ask for is better disability insurance and some control over work rules,” Dau-Schmidt said. “If those conditions were significantly better at private schools then Georgia might have to respond in order to get players. That’s the way it might affect Georgia, at least if those benefits are important to players. That would be quite a ways down the road. First of all, we’ll have to see if this is upheld on appeal. We’ll have to see if they succeed in organizing and bargaining and we’ll have to see if it actually spreads.”

There are also state-specific labor laws. Georgia is one of 24 “right-to-work-state,” meaning a union of college players wouldn’t be able to collectively bargain, something that Bulldogs senior linebacker Amarlo Herrera mentioned.

“And then I’ll probably be out of college when it comes into play,” Herrera said.

NCAA reforms, of course, could impact all athletes, including at Georgia.

The Southeastern Conference has pushed for the addition of a cost-of-attendance stipend to the scholarships of athletes, but that hasn’t been adopted yet nationally.

Wilson said he would like extra money to buy shoes, clothes and groceries.

“You should get something to be able to go to the movies or go home,” Herrera said.

Center David Andrews said: “Personally, I just want to play football. If you get a chance to make it to the next level, that’s where you get paid. … I don’t ever think we’ll see college players have a salary and become employees. Maybe an extra $1,000 here or there with a scholarship.”

The SEC issued a statement from commissioner Mike Slive on Wednesday that said: “SEC does not believe that full time students participating in intercollegiate athletics are employees of the universities they attend.”

Said Andrews: “I don’t know why you would want to become an employee because that means you can get fired.”

Georgia athletic director Greg McGarity declined to comment, deferring to Slive’s statement.

Some Georgia players took part in a silent protest during a game last season along with players from Northwestern and Georgia Tech as part of the National College Players Association, which is connected to the College Athletes Player Association. It is led by former UCLA football player Ramogi Huma.

Georgia’s football program in the fiscal year ending June 30, 2013, generated direct revenues of $22.47 million, $23.55 million in ticket contributions from football season tickets and $19.58 million from TV income via the SEC and NCAA. Its expenses were $19.28 million.

The NCPA website says among its goals is to minimize college athletes’ brain trauma risks, raise the scholarship amount to the cost of attendance and prevent players from having to pay sports-related medical expenses.

“It’s not just a money issue and I think that’s what people on the outside kind of think,” said Georgia senior receiver Chris Conley, the SEC representative to the NCAA Division I Student-Athlete Advisory Committee. “‘Oh, athletes are just trying to get paid. They need to calm down with this.’ It’s an issue that spans so many more things, time constraints, health, concussions, a bunch of stuff.”

By NCAA rules, football players can spend 20 hours per week during the season on their sport and eight during the offseason.

“It feels like you’re always doing football,” defensive end Josh Dawson said.

Georgia coach Mark Richt was asked on Tuesday how much time players spend on football during the season.

“A lot,” he said. “We’ve got a 20-hour rule that’s time that is countable, which is film study, strength and conditioning, practice. For the things that don’t count … is when you’re in the training room, before and after, or any kind of film work they do on their own. Gameday counts as three hours, but if you leave on Friday for an away game and don’t come back till midnight the day of the game, that’s a long time too, you know? So there’s a lot of hours that are put in and it’s pretty amazing for them to do that and then do other things that they’ve got to do academically as well. … They don’t have a lot of free time. Sometimes we talk about teaching them how to manage their time, and they look at us like: ‘What time is that that you’re talking about?’ So they put a lot of hours in.”

Dau-Schmidt said it’s likely the full NLRB will uphold the appeal because the board has a majority of Democratic appointments, but if it went to the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, its chances of being upheld is “even money.” The Supreme Court could eventually hear the case, but he said that could take more than a decade.

Follow Marc online at twitter.com/marcweiszer.

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