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Joe Henderson Columns

Henderson: Athletes need protection, can’t trust NCAA to do right thing

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Published:   |   Updated: March 31, 2014 at 06:37 AM

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I love college sports, but I also understand big-time college athletics is a business.

For all the NCAA claims that its does for, ahem, “student”-athletes, let’s not forget something. It has been transformed from an agent of good into a parasitic agency that exploits the athletes it says it protects.

The NCAA’s primary mission now is to protect itself. It has become a voracious revenue monster that profits from the work of athletes who have virtually no say over how they are treated or (don’t get me started) compensated.

So, yeah, you could say I have a little trouble buying into the apocalyptic proclamations by the collegiate chicken littles who say the sky has turned into a fireball because football players at Northwestern University can create a union.

The ruling by a director of the National Labor Relations Board (sure to be vigorously appealed) says athletes “fall squarely” within the definition of what constitutes an employee.

Here’s what’s at stake.

You enjoy watching March Madness? The NCAA has a 14-year, $10.8 billion deal with CBS and Turner Broadcasting to carry the tournament.

The Big 12 Conference has a $2.6 billion contract from ESPN/Fox that runs through 2025. The Southeastern Conference is about to launch its own network. Other major conferences have similarly lucrative TV deals.

Merchandising sales were an estimated $4.6 billion in 2012. Not only did current players receive none of that, but former UCLA basketball player Ed O’Bannon was the lead in a class-action suit over the NCAA’s use of his image in video games long after he graduated — without compensation.

You want to buy season tickets to watch your beloved University of Florida Gators football team? You may have to get in line behind the Bull Gators boosters. They get first dibs on up to eight tickets as a reward for donating at least $15,000 a year.

That’s common practice at football powerhouse schools. Alabama has to come up with the $5.3 million it pays head coach Nick Saban somehow.

Of course, schools could always generate more dough by having the hired hands play a few more games. Remember when a college football season was 10 games, then maybe a bowl? Now it’s 12 games, plus a bowl. Elite teams will be in a playoff next season.

UCLA’s undefeated 1973 national championship basketball team finished 30-0. Last year’s men’s champion, Louisville, played 40 games. That’s nearly half the length of an NBA season.

Did anyone consider what all those extra games would do to the athletes? Or how it would impact the “student” part of the student-athlete profile?

For athletes, this isn’t just about being paid above the price of their scholarships. Football players, for instance, should be concerned about long-term health care.

Athletes produce a staggering amount of money for their schools and those others who know a good thing when they see it.

In this case, the students did their homework and realized just how many people were getting rich off their athletic work. It’s time they were given a seat at the table.

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