Apr 18, 2014
12:04 PM
The Connecticut Story

On Heels of UConn's NCAA Titles, Student-Athletes Unionizing Has Traction

On Heels of UConn's NCAA Titles, Student-Athletes Unionizing Has Traction

Darren McCollester/Getty Images

Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy celebrates UConn's NCAA tournament sweep with coaches Geno Auriemma and Kevin Ollie.

While sitting in a coffeehouse in April, State Rep. Patricia Dillon, D-New Haven, posted a short Facebook message (below) in response to pro student athlete unionization comments made by UConn men’s basketball star Shabazz Napier.

The post received attention from local and national news outlets including MSNBC and Mother Jones.

“By the time I got home it had been picked up by the Courant and then by Connecticut Capital Report,” she says.

The National Labor Relations Board ruled last month that the football players at Northwestern, a private college, have the right to form the first labor union in college sports. However, the ruling does not extend the right to athletes at public universities like UConn. Dillon plans to sponsor legislation that will change that.

As the response to Dillon’s post indicates, the movement in support of college athlete unionization is a hot topic nationally. It is also a particularly potent issue in Connecticut given the attention college athletics have received in the state following UConn’s men and women basketball sweep of the NCAA tournament.      

Although Dillon (right) was surprised by the publicity surrounding her Facebook comment, she is a longtime supporter of college athletes' rights and is not shying away from her support of students unionizing.

"If you’re worried about battling injuries, or limiting your ability to earn for the rest of your life, it’s not that different from working in a steel plant,” she says. “I want kids involved in sports but I don’t want them to be injured and I don’t want them to be exploited, and I’m willing to look at whatever we have to do to stop that."

She adds that many college scholarships are offered for only one year, and that in the event of injuries the students lose their scholarships and are often responsible for their own medical bills. “The stories I’ve heard are just stunning, head trauma, broken legs, broken backs, all at the college level, all buried. The kid just gets dropped off the team and loses his scholarship.”

The Napier comments that inspired Dillon’s post were made during the NCCA championship tournament.

"We as student athletes get utilized for what we do so well,” Napier (below) told reporters. “We are definitely blessed to get a scholarship to our universities, but at the end of the day that doesn't cover everything. We do have hungry nights that we don't have enough money to get food and sometimes money is needed. I think, you know, Northwestern has an idea, and we'll see where it goes."

In 2011, Dillon worked with Ramogi Huma, the leader of the National College Athletes Players Association, on a new law requiring public universities to disclose to prospective athletes what health care benefits they would receive. (It was Huma's organization that petitioned the National Labor Relations Board to allow Northwestern's football team to form a union). 

Dillon says she will not move forward with her enabling legislation until the next legislative session, which begins next winter.

"I want to get it right and I would want to get it vetted, and I would want to make sure that there’s a consensus on it," she says.

In the meantime, the NCAA is feeling pressure from a variety of avenues. In addition to the National Labor Relations Board Ruling, this summer a major antitrust suit against the NCAA will go to trial. The suit, which was brought to court by former UCLA basketball star Ed O’Bannon, concerns the NCAA’s use of the likeness of former players in videogames and merchandise without providing compensation.

I have never in the last 35 years of my life seen the NCAA in more of a bind,” says Allen Sack, president of the Drake Group for Academic Integrity in Collegiate Sport, a nonprofit lobbying organization in residence at the University of New Haven.

Sack says that the efforts of student athletes to unionize makes a lot of sense because “it looks to me like college athletes in many of the big time schools today have been transformed into employees.”

Though Sack supports these efforts, his organization is seeking sponsorship for a bill that would address student rights in a different way. Called The College Athletes Protection Act or the CAP Act, Sack says the bill would require a dramatic restructuring of the NCAA to bring it “more in line with the academic needs of the athletes.”  As part of the act, there would be independent oversight of the NCAA, limits on what students could be required to do, and scholarship and health benefit protection for students.

“If students get union status I would be happy,” says Sack. “But I’d be happier if we could get them out of the employee status and get them back to being students.”

Dillon has worked with Sack and the Drake group in the past and says she will look at various ideas concerning student athletes.

"The important thing to me is to make sure that these young people are protected and that as we’re tossing confetti and so forth we think about the injuries that they can be exposed to out there and we take responsibility for it,” she says. 

Contact me by email eofgang@connecticutmag.com and follow me on Twitter, and connect with Connecticut Magazine on Twitter, on Facebook and on Google +



On Heels of UConn's NCAA Titles, Student-Athletes Unionizing Has Traction

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