Two former college football players and the NFL Players Association announced plans yesterday to unionize college athletes, saying they would demand the athletes receive "a fair share" of the revenues they generate for their schools.
Asserting athletes at collegiate athletic superpowers are, in reality, workers, Allen Sack, a former Notre Dame defensive end, contended they are entitled to the same type of union protection and benefits as workers in organized labor, and should have the right of collective bargaining to achieve their goals.
A spokesman for the NCAA said the proposal to unionize players is "totally contrary to the spirit of college athletics" and would have severe repercussions if put into effect.
Kermit Alexander, former UCLA and NFL defensive back, said in some cases college athletes should be entitled to direct compensation for their revenue-producing efforts on the fields and courts.
Sack is project director and Alexander field coordinator for the newly formed Center for Athletes Rights and Education (CARE). During the coming weeks, they told a news conference, CARE staff members will be visiting college campuses across the nation to organize union locals.
Cary Goodman, executive director of CARE, said the union would be for athletes in all sports, but officials said initial organizing efforts would be directed at the schools that supply the majority of players for the NFL. "We are opposed to the exploitation of a small number of athletes for the general university fund," Goodman said.
Other organizations supporting CARE are the National Conference of Black Lawyers and Sports for People Inc.
"By the time an athlete gets into the professional ranks, it is almost too late to protect some of his rights that may have already gone by the boards," said Ed Garvey, executive director of the NFLPA.
Sack, a sociology professor at the University of New Haven who played on Notre Dame's 1966 national championship team, outlined what he called an "Athletes' Bill of Rights."
Among the demands are the right to tuition-free courses at any time in order to complete degree requirements; multiyear grants-in-aid to permit athletes to complete their degrees even if injured and unable to play; remedial courses; tutoring and counseling; the right to form unions and bargain collectively, and the right to share revenue they generate.
Participants in the press briefing stopped short of advocating direct cash payments to athletes, but they did say there should be an insurance system for injured athletes similar to workmen's compensation. They said more money should be diverted from gate and television receipts into programs that directly benefit athletes.
Alexander said he could envision some hardship cases in which an athlete should be eligible for direct compensation, although when pressed would not provide specifics.
Tom Hansen, assistant executive director for the NCAA, said the organization had had no contact with CARE regarding its program. "I think some of their proposals would bring a strong negative reaction," he said when told of CARE's plans.
"I think especially the idea of collective bargaining would not go over. What you end up with is salaried players, which is contrary to the entire spirit of college athletics."
Hansen said to his knowledge no other group has attempted to organize college athletes.
Joe Paterno, head football coach and athletic director at Penn State, declined to speculate on possible effects of unionization, saying the idea was new to him. He did add, "I've always said that if a kid got his education and was prepared for life, he got a good deal."
John Elway, quarterback for Stanford, said unionization "would totally wreck college football. There's no way that should ever happen because all the amateurism in the sport will have been lost.
"And what about all the other (smaller) sports?" he said. "How will they survive if the money from the major sports goes to players? Universities are already paying their way with scholarships. They would be foolish to make a move like that."