ATHENS, Ga. -- There are strong feelings. There is heated rhetoric. There is talk of the NCAA as a cartel, the dire consequences of unionization, changing college athletics as we know it.
And then there are Ramik Wilson and Marion Crowder, the people all of this actually affects.
Wilson is an All-SEC linebacker for the Georgia football team, which brought in about $42 million to the school in fiscal year 2013. He wants a bit more money in his pocket, to get some nice shoes, maybe treat himself to a steak.
“We need something,” Wilson said. “Because any play we can tear our ACL out there or break our necks. We’re putting our lives on the line, and it’s for their entertainment on Saturday.”
Then there’s Crowder, who did just as much for her team this year as Wilson. Only her sport is women’s soccer, and Crowder knows the difference in the grand scheme.
“I think we understand that we’re not necessarily the money-makers of the university,” said Crowder, who as a freshman led the Bulldogs in goals and points last fall. “And I honestly think that we’re all happy to be playing college soccer.”
These are days of change in college sports. And on the campus at Georgia, key figures await the result, partly with wariness but also with a sense that some change will be good.
“If the Johnny Manziels and Todd Gurleys and Keith Marshalls of the world, since their names are plastered everywhere, I can understand if they have a much stronger opinion on what they want and what they see is fit,” Crowder said.
There was yet another lawsuit filed against the NCAA and member schools Friday, with a former Florida football player involved. It was the same day Northwestern football players voted on whether to unionize. The results of the vote were not revealed, but the very fact that the National Labor Relations Board ruled that players are employees sent tremors through the NCAA.
But a middle ground is emerging that those who run college sports hope will assuage some concerns:
The NCAA is on the verge of allowing the five biggest conferences -- the SEC, ACC, Big Ten, Big 12 and Pac-12 -- some autonomy in rule-making, voting Thursday to set up that framework.
When that happens, those conferences can vote to allow athletes to receive a so-called cost-of-attendance stipend. This has been proposed in the past and voted down by the smaller schools that can’t afford it. Now it appears closer to reality.
“My guess is you’ll see some movement on those issues, and that may in large part address some of the issues that have led to the Northwestern situation,” Georgia president Jere Morehead said Wednesday.
That still leaves some thorny issues. Will all athletes receive a stipend or just “money-making” athletes? And how much? And what other problems should be addressed?
But ultimately it could be hard to pay football and basketball players but not other athletes.
“The lawyer in me finds it difficult to see how you could differentiate between one sport and another sport,” Morehead said. “But I’m sure that in some way you would have to have gender equity considered in whatever decision that was made. How that would play out, and how it would operate, I think time would tell. But you’d certainly have some potential legal challenges if you didn’t do it in a fair and equitable manner, and we should do it in a fair and equitable manner.”
But what is fair and equitable will be the next thorny issue.
If it’s about giving something back to the athletes who help bring in money, does each football player get treated alike? Does Gurley, Georgia’s star tailback get paid the same as a walk-on?
That gets to why many in the sport are wary of unions and the idea of players being treated like employees.
“It seems like once you unionize, you declare these young men as employees, there’s so many questions that come up,” Georgia football head coach Mark Richt said. “Can you give somebody a raise, can you give some guy more than that guy based on performance, can you fire this guy? He’s not good enough, fire him, see you later. There’s some protection in the way things are now for the student-athlete. From some of those types of things.
“So I don’t know what all that would mean. But it sure would complicate things for a while.”
That is why Richt and most everyone associated with the five major conferences favor the cost-of-attendance scholarships. The Georgia football players interviewed in the wake of the NLRB ruling last month sounded like they’d be satisfied with that.
“As much as they can give us we can take,” Wilson said. “We just need something. Because we’re out there risking everything.”
But just giving athletes spending money isn’t likely to solve everything.
Every day, it seems another news story comes up of a perceived injustice against an athlete by the NCAA. Friday was word that Michigan basketball star Mitch McGary tested positive for marijuana and would be suspended a year, despite being out at the time of the test with an injury. McGary declared for the NBA draft rather than sit.
Georgia had its own recent issue, with offensive lineman Kolton Houston ineligible for three years because he could not pass a drug test. The school argued that scientific evidence showed Houston was the victim of one long-ago injection. The NCAA never relented, until Houston finally passed a test.
“People need to realize that whether it’s by unionizing or it’s by another means, there are some issues that need to be looked at, other than just paying athletes,” said Georgia senior receiver Chris Conley, who is a student-athlete rep to the NCAA. “It’s student-athlete well-being. Student-athlete experience.”
Asked what else he’d like to see addressed, Morehead pointed to time constraints on athletes and how that affects their ability to get a degree.
“I certainly would favor more rules that protect our student-athletes and their abilities to get their degrees,” he said. “I think we have a commitment at this institution to do so. Anything we can do to make sure that everyone we enroll eventually earns their college degree would be at the top of my list.”
As all these issues percolate nationally, the feelings of those at Georgia are truly mixed. Morehead, athletics director Greg McGarity and coaches want to be progressive but choose their words carefully. The players themselves seem divided. Many football players are vociferous in their support of unionization, while it’s rarely talked about by other athletes.
“Honestly, it is not a topic of conversation,” Crowder said. “And the only time that I have talked about is with a football player or somebody money-making in the athletic department.”
But the prevailing sense is that real change is coming. The cost-of-attendance stipend in some form now seems likely.
The question now is just how much change there will be.
“I think everybody’s just kind of waiting to see what’s gonna happen,” Richt said.