CLEMSON - The pay-for-play debate rages on, but it's an age-old one. More than two decades ago, a University of Alabama student in a persuasive speech course wrote a paper emphasizing the purity of college athletics, arguing student-athletes should not be paid like professionals for their services.
That student was a walk-on football player named Dabo Swinney. Clemson's head football coach, coming off the practice field following the Tigers' seventh spring practice this month, was informed of the latest news Wednesday evening.
As he's done so many times, Swinney shook his head at the topic, when he learned a federal agency granted Northwestern football players permission to create college sports' first union.
"We've got enough entitlement in this country as it is," Swinney said. "To say these guys get nothing totally devalues an education. It just blows my mind people don't even want to quantify an education.
"I didn't get into coaching to make money - coaches weren't making any money when I got into coaching. It's what I wanted to do with my life, and I was able to do it because of my education. That's what changed my life. That's what changes everybody's life."
National Labor Relations Board regional director Peter Sung Ohr, in a 24-page release, determined that a months-long crusade led by former Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter held water.
Lawfully, an employee receives compensation for a service under direct supervision by managers. Ohr's conclusion was Northwestern football players receive scholarships as compensation and are managed by coaches.
Wednesday's startling development won't immediately impact Clemson, South Carolina or any other state-funded public institutions, which are not governed by the NLRB.
However, other private institutions - including Vanderbilt in the SEC, and six of the ACC's 15 schools - have a blueprint to follow the lead of former Northwestern players, and it's believed public universities could eventually do the same.
Immediately, Ohr's decision was rebuked by the NCAA and its power conferences.
"We frequently hear from student-athletes, across all sports, that they participate to enhance their overall college experience and for the love of their sport, not to be paid," the NCAA said in a Wednesday statement. "We want student-athletes - 99 percent of whom will never make it to the professional leagues - focused on what matters most: finding success in the classroom, on the field and in life."
"Notwithstanding today's decision," SEC commissioner Mike Slive stated to The Associated Press, "the SEC does not believe that full-time students participating in intercollegiate athletics are employees of the universities they attend."
South Carolina spokesman Steve Fink told The Post and Courier on Wednesday that the university had no further comment beyond the NCAA and SEC statements. However, one former Gamecock and current NFL draft prospect - who believes college players should be paid - opposes Northwestern's strategy.
"That's causing too many problems on a team," defensive tackle Kelcy Quarles told The State. "What if you have a certain group of guys who wants to go with this union and then you have another group of guys saying, 'I don't want to be a part of it'? That's going to create division on the team, first of all, and you can't even focus on football."
Such a union wouldn't expressly be created to promote salaries for college football players. But student-athletes would receive benefits and protections similar to NFL players, which could lead to players having a say in the frequency of practices or the ability to seek outside endorsement contracts.
"With the sacrifices we make athletically, medically and with our bodies, we need to be taken care of," Colter told ESPN.
Northwestern University plans to appeal the ruling with labor authorities in Washington, D.C. Alan Cubbage, Northwestern's vice president for university relations, said in a statement that while the school respects "the NLRB process and the regional director's opinion, we disagree with it."
The NCAA has been under increasing scrutiny over its amateurism rules and is fighting a class-action federal lawsuit by former players seeking a cut of the billions of dollars earned from live broadcasts, memorabilia sales and video games. Other lawsuits allege the NCAA failed to protect players from debilitating head injuries.
NCAA President Mark Emmert has pushed for a $2,000-per-player stipend to help athletes defray some expenses.
Critics say that's not nearly enough, considering players help bring in millions of dollars to their schools and conferences.
"Over the last three years, our member colleges and universities have worked to re-evaluate the current rules," read the NCAA's statement. "While improvements need to be made, we do not need to completely throw away a system that has helped literally millions of students over the past decade alone attend college."
Swinney agrees with Emmert on the stipends. He's just not sure how much is enough.
"I am 1,000 percent in favor of a stipend or modernizing the scholarships, because they haven't changed," Swinney said. "Costs more to go to a movie, costs more to buy gas, costs more to wash your clothes than it did when I was in school.
"There needs to be an adjustment there. But as far as professionalizing college athletics, college athletics would go away."
This upcoming fall will be the second consecutive season one of Swinney's veteran cornerbacks is involved with a legal battle opposing his head coach's views.
Last summer, it was revealed then-senior Darius Robinson was one of six college football players joining the ongoing Ed O'Bannon case suing the NCAA for licensing fees. On March 17, rising senior Martin Jenkins became a plaintiff in a case claiming the NCAA violates antitrust laws in keeping college athletes as unpaid amateurs.
Swinney reiterated Wednesday he supported Robinson in his 2013 cause, and will "absolutely" do the same for Jenkins, who has not been made available for interviews this spring.
"These are all passionate individuals. That's what makes this world go 'round," Swinney said. "Everybody's got their own opinions and beliefs. You've got Republicans and Democrats and Independents and the Tea Parties. I have no problem with guys wanting to be supportive of things they believe in. That's totally up to them."
Still, Swinney won't back down from his stance.
"(Former Clemson quarterback and NFL draft prospect) Tajh Boyd could quit football right now, and they'd be lined up from here to California to hire that guy," Swinney said. "You know why? Because he took advantage of his opportunity and his platform and marketing and the brand. These guys are trained, they've got great expertise and great resources. There's so many things that go into the college experience and college education, more importantly."
Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.
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