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Terry Pluto on college sports, unions, and where it all may be heading


Tim Rudell
Northwestern University has formally asked a U.S. labor agency to review a decision by one of its regional directors that the school's football players are effectively employees and can therefore vote on whether to unionize.
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In The Region:
The big money in big-time college sports has brought calls for paying players, and even for players’ unions. WKSU commentator Terry Pluto talks with Tim Rudell about where it all may be headed.
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The National Labor Relations Board ruled last month that football players at Northwestern who want to claim employee status at the university and try to form a union can do so. Northwestern University has formally asked a U.S. labor agency to review that decision. 

Terry Pluto says the idea is bold but its ramifications are anything but predictable.

“It’s always the classic thing,” Pluto said. “You throw a rock in the water and the ripples just go out and out and you can never imagine where they’re going to hit.”

Higher taxes for players
One unintended consequence of unionization would likely be football players having to pay out more in income taxes.

“If you want to go a strict union thing, then that means tuition, and room and board, and everything else should be counted as wages,” Pluto said. “So that’d be $50,000 or $60,000 for a place like Northwestern. You know, at Akron U, it’d be like $20,000 or $25,000.”

When it comes to the IRS, those wages add up quickly.

“So think about this,” Pluto said. “You’re a quarterback at Northwestern. I’d say okay, fine, you are now paid $50,000. Free tuition, that’s what it’s worth, but you owe about $12,000 in taxes. So suddenly you’re writing a check for 12 grand, you could go the opposite way.”

Pluto doesn’t think that’s what the Northwestern football players are actually looking to do.

“The guys that were behind this, it’s just the fact that, common sense tells you, you watch on TV, whether it’s March Madness or 100,000 people at an Ohio State game. There’s millions upon millions of dollars going everywhere except to the players on the field.”

What happens to less popular sports?
The idea of paying college athletes gets even murkier when you consider other sports that don’t bring in as much money to the school.

“Remember we’re only talking one big sport here, football,” Pluto said. “And a lesser sport, basketball. None of the other sports have any chance of making money. Not a chance. But at Ohio State, for example, the football program is making enough money, frankly, to fund the entire athletic department. University of Texas football does the same thing.”

Wages not an option at smaller schools

Another issue is smaller schools whose football programs are not as profitable as some of the more well-known Universities.

“Say of the 120 schools playing Division I football—and that’s a round off number-- about 30 are your big time schools,” Pluto said. “And then you have 90 that are your Akron, and Kent, those kind of places. When you look at their football budgets every year—you can get them online—they’re running deficits of a million to two million dollars. Deficits. Just for football.”

Unionization could force split 
Pluto says for unionization or player wages to work, the universities with bigger sports programs would have to split off from the smaller ones.

“You break off into your Super 30—I’m just using that number—and the Super 30 the athletic directors, everybody gets into a room to figure it all out,” Pluto said. “We got a maybe even close to a billion dollar pot by the time you add it all together. How we going to pay the guys?”

Then comes the question of whether athletes in less profitable sports at those bigger universities will be paid.

“Suppose you’re a hockey player at Minnesota or you’re the women’s basketball player, or you’re in the Ohio State band—and boy do they put in the hours,” Pluto said. “Do they get paid, too? How do we divide it up to keep out of legal trouble? I don’t have an answer for this, but I mean that has to be faced.”

Benefits of smaller programs
When it comes to covering sports, Pluto says the smaller schools will always be preferred.

“The other 90 schools, they’re basically run more like an academic institution as they are,” Pluto said. “As a sportswriter, for example, I always say my favorite conferences and colleges to cover are like the Horizon League where Cleveland State is or MAC on down because the kids, frankly, don’t come with a big sense of entitlement.”

Northwestern move could lead to other changes
As for Northwestern, Pluto’s hope is that it will spark some reform.

“I do think the one thing the Northwestern lawsuit has done that I like, is said this is messed up,” Pluto said. “This system right now is not working and it has to change.”

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