Players, coaches across NCAA split on union ruling

rblack@ledger-enquirer.comMarch 27, 2014 

Former Auburn tight end Philip Lutzenkirchen was killed in a car wreck in LaGrange, Georgia, early Sunday morning.

TODD J. VAN EMST — Auburn University

AUBURN, Ala.Philip Lutzenkirchen’s first tweet Thursday morning consisted of two questions.

“So if northwestern (sic) players are 'employees' now, can they be fired for not performing on the field?” he tweeted. “Or if they miss class?”

He followed up with an answer to his own queries.

“My point is play bad Saturday get fired Sunday solely based on performance,” he said.

But Auburn’s former tight end was just getting started. For the next half hour, Lutzenkirchen continued to share his thoughts on his personal Twitter account. He was all for college athletes getting a little extra money, noting he “lived check to check” while he was a student.

What he didn’t agree with was Wednesday’s decision by the Chicago district of the National Labor Relations Board, which ruled that Northwestern football players qualified as employees of the university, therefore giving them the right to unionize.

“I agree there needs to be some sort of change but creating a union for amateur sports I do not agree with. Players should ... receive more money bc (sic) it is a struggle to get by, but also they receive free housing, meals, tutoring, education, are treated like icons,” Lutzenkirchen wrote in a series of tweets. “… And if carry (sic) themselves correctly while in college they get great job offers from huge alumni. Those are benefits enough for me.”

Ramogi Huma, who is president of the National College Players Association, filed the petition on behalf of the Northwestern players. Huma was the organizer of the “All Players United” protest, which occurred last September. Football players at several schools — including Georgia’s offensive linemen — wore wristbands with “APU” scrolled on them, according to beat writer Seth Emerson.

In January when the petition was filed, Georgia sophomore tailback Keith Marshall was among the first to react on Twitter, posting: “I like what the Northwestern players are doing!”

Several other Georgia players reacted in similar fashion, including Kolton Houston, the Georgia offensive lineman who had a three-year battle with the NCAA over his eligibility: “Props to Northwestern’s players, hope it works.”

Georgia men’s basketball player Marcus Thornton said in an interview in January with Seth Emerson that he also supports the idea of unionizing.

“It’s like any other different platforms in the working world. I think it’s great,” Thornton said. “I think it’s great for collegiate athletes to have a voice, and a say-so.”

The NCAA, not surprisingly, was on the same side as Lutzenkirchen. After Wednesday’s ruling came down, the governing body released a statement, saying it was “disappointed” and strongly disagreed “with the notion that student-athletes are employees.”

The NCAA cited former student-athletes it has heard from who said they played sports in college for the experience and for the “love of their sport,” not to receive compensation.

“Over the last three years, our member colleges and universities have worked to re-evaluate the current rules. While improvements need to be made, we do not need to completely throw away a system that has helped literally millions of students over the past decade alone attend college,” the statement read. “We want student-athletes — 99 percent of whom will never make it to the professional leagues — focused on what matters most — finding success in the classroom, on the field and in life.”

The Southeastern Conference responded to Wednesday’s ruling as well, taking its cue from the NCAA.

“The SEC does not believe that full time students participating in intercollegiate athletics are employees of the universities they attend," conference commissioner Mike Slive said in a written statement.

T.J. Moe begged to differ.

Don’t try to tell him being a college football player at a major Division I program isn’t a full-time job.

“Saturday itself covers a ton of hours- meetings, film, walk through, warm ups, 3-4 hour game. Day starts at 9am ends at 11pm if night gm (sic),” the former Missouri wide receiver tweeted. “Add in travel and thats (sic) another 4-8 hours if away game. Sunday is a lift, meetings for hours, then practice. Sat. & Sun cover a ton of hrs (sic).”

As adamant as Moe was about the time and effort college football players have to put in during the fall, even he wasn’t necessarily in favor of Wednesday’s ruling.

“Not sure a union is the way to handle it,” he tweeted. “If you want to be treated like an employee, must be prepared to be terminated at any time.”

Moe went on to raise tough questions that will need answers going forward.

Would players be willing to strike? If so, how will that affect their scholarships? On the flip side, can schools lock out picketing players and prevent them from attending classes? And what of taxes, Moe asked? If college players start receiving salaries, the government can then be allowed to tax student-athletes.

“I think we're digging a hole that could really damage college athletics. I hate the NCAA bullying, but don't think union is answer,” Moe tweeted. “What the student athletes need is someone to go to bat for them. Not sure what that look (sic) like, but making themselves employees isn't smart.”

In Moe’s view, there is a way to pay student-athletes without organizing unions: let each player negotiate deals on their own behalf. Jersey sales, autographs, shoe deals — name an endorsement and Moe was on board.

“I know this, there would be far less complains (sic) from student athletes about the NCAA if allowed to promote themselves and make $$ (sic) from that,” he tweeted. “Tell me Nike wouldn't love to sponsor a ton of college athletes and use them for profit? Of course they would. Both sides win.”

Lutzenkirchen couldn’t dispute that point. He believed he could have profited had he been given a cut of the sales featuring his popular No. 43 jersey — and said he would have shared the wealth with his teammates.

He admitted seeing others sport his digits and getting nothing in return bothered him.

“(C)harging $70+ for a jersey that I wore and was successful in and nt (sic) seeing a dime from it is crooked,” Lutzenkirchen tweeted.

Still, he fell back on the opportunity his athletic scholarship afforded him: to get a degree from a major university.

It’s a mentality he wishes others would duplicate.

“Athlete (sic) should be thankful for there (sic) free $200k education,” he tweeted. “It's not ur (sic) profession yet. Ur (sic) a kid still.”

Lutzenkirchen has an ally in Dabo Swinney. When informed of the ruling after Wednesday’s practice, Clemson’s coach couldn’t hide his disdain. Not that he was surprised, mind you.

Just disappointed.

"We've got enough entitlement in this country as it is. To say these guys get nothing totally devalues an education,” he told reporters. “It just blows my mind people don't even want to quantify an education. I didn't get into coaching to make money — coaches weren't making any money when I got into coaching. It's what I wanted to do with my life, and I was able to do it because of my education. That's what changed my life. That's what changes everybody's life."

Seth Emerson contributed to this story

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