Pro Sports Unions Can Offer College Players Associate Membership

Players unions for the National Football League and National Basketball Association could help top-level college athletes by offering them associate memberships, sports labor lawyer Jeffrey Kessler said.

“You can’t organize college players into unions,” Kessler said at the Bloomberg Sports Business Summit hosted by Bloomberg Link in New York. “They’re not considered workers, the NLRB won’t recognize them as workers. So it has to be an association that’s not a union.”

Kessler said the basketball and players unions could look into free associate memberships for college athletes to provide advice and counsel. He has worked for both players’ unions.

Compensation of National Collegiate Athletic Association athletes has been debated after the recent investigation into whether Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Johnny Manziel of Texas A&M University accepted money from a memorabilia dealer for items he autographed. NCAA rules bar such payments.

In addition, Electronic Arts Inc. faces a lawsuit from former college athletes, who claim the company violated their rights by using their images in its “NCAA Football” video games without paying them or getting their permission.

“What role the pros can play is an interesting question,” Kessler said. “There’s no question that in Division I men’s basketball and at the top of football and women’s basketball as well, basically these are students who are being asked to act as professionals by their university without any real compensation.”

Educating Players

Ron Klempner, deputy general counsel for the basketball union, said he’s had conversations with current NBA players about advising and educating at the college basketball level.

“I certainly hear that they want them to come into the league and have a greater consciousness about the business and about the union,” Klempner said.

Kessler said schools in major sports conferences are in a business that’s different from the rest of the universities and colleges that make up the NCAA’s membership.

“They want different rules, different policies to apply to them,” Kessler said. “Because in the sports business world, they are different animals.”

Chief concerns, Kessler said, would include getting fewer restrictions on how schools can compensate athletes and facilitate sponsorships.

“It’s not for the 2 percent who make it to the pros, because that’s their payoff, but what about the 98 percent who play three or four years and that’s the end of it,” he said. “They’ve given all this revenue generation to the universities and some of them come out without a degree.”

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