Fordham Basketball: What the Northwestern Ruling Means for the Rams

Charles Costello@@CFCostelloContributor IMarch 27, 2014

Get ready, Fordham.

It's now just a matter of time before the debate over whether or not college athletes should be paid will make its way to Rose Hill.

On Wednesday, Peter Ohr, a regional director of the National Labor Relations Board, ruled that football players at Northwestern University were employees, thus allowing for the scholarship football players at the school to form a union.

While this decision is only in response to the group of Northwestern football players who petitioned the NLRB—and, for now, does not apply to other private schools or any other sport—you can bet that yesterday's ruling will forever change the landscape of college athletics.

As revenue has grown over the past few years, there's been more and more of a push to pay student-athletes. 

The New York Times points out the following:

"The ruling comes at a time when the N.C.A.A. and its largest conferences are generating billions of dollars, primarily from football and men’s basketball. The television contract for the new college football playoff system is worth $7.3 billion over 10 years, and the current deal to broadcast the men’s basketball tournament is worth $10.8 billion over 14 years."

That's a lot of money, of course, but we're only talking about two of the many sports colleges offer. And the amount of revenue schools generate varies considerably.

So what does this ruling mean for Fordham?

The university fields a Football Championship Subdivision (non-BCS) football team and a men's basketball program that does not generate the revenue that, say, Syracuse does. Imagine if Fordham had to pay its athletes? How could it afford to pay the men's basketball and football players, let alone the women's soccer and men's swimming teams?

It's both scary and fascinating to consider the impact this ruling could have.

"I think it's really interesting," Fordham men's basketball coach Tom Pecora told me when I asked him for his thoughts on the ruling. "If you ask a bunch of 40-year-old former college athletes if what they were doing in college was work as compared to what they're doing at age 40, they'd all laugh and say 'I'd give my right arm to be doing that again.'"

Tuition at Fordham, including room and board, costs about $60,000 per year. That means a men's basketball player who is on scholarship for four years is essentially being given a $240,000 stipend. That, too, is a lot of money.

"I think they're being compensated in a tremendous way, not only at Fordham but college athletes in general," Pecora said. "Could there be some small changes to it? You bet.

"The problem is you run the gamut from the biggest school in the country with the largest budget to the smallest Division I school in the country and the smallest budget. You can't put down a flat number and say every athlete is going to get X amount of dollars and expect the smallest school in the country to be able to pay the same amount as the largest school in the country. It's dictated by conferences and TV money.

"From a legal standpoint this is going to be a long battle with appeals and different levels. I think it's going to make for a very interesting case."

And then there's this: You would have to believe that there are still schools, like Fordham, that value the student part of student-athlete more than they value what the athlete does on the court or field.

I still want to believe that a college degree goes further than a national championship. While that doesn't ease the pain of the Fordham faithful—who have been waiting for two decades for the school to build a winning basketball program—it matters to a lot of people.

"That's why I'm here and not at other jobs," Pecora said, referring to Fordham's academic standards. "I had opportunities to go to schools where that wouldn't have been an issue, just winning games would have been. I turned those opportunities down.

"You have to know who you are and what your strengths and weaknesses are. So often as coaches we talk to players about [their] strengths and weaknesses. But then as a coach and as a person do you do the same thing?

"If you're not graduating players there's got to be a greater penalty for it. If you don't graduate a player in five years you should have one less scholarship until that player graduates.

"There's a bit of a hypocritical mindset here."

There are some refreshing stories out there. Take, for example, Eric Paschall, who was just named prep player of the year in New England. Here is a young man who has incredible basketball skills. He'll be joining the Rams next season. His father, Juan, told ESPN New York's Ian O'Connor that Fordham had a lot to offer. And guess what? He wasn't just talking about basketball.

"Eric could've signed with a school in any of those conferences," he said. "But he established a great relationship with the Fordham coaches, it's close to where we live and, after the air comes out of the ball, a Fordham degree carries a lot of weight in the New York area."

This is a player who could have gone to a bigger and better program. But Paschall feels the same way about Fordham as his father does.

"It's a perfect situation for me as it's a great academic school that's close to home and I have a great relationship with the coaching staff," he said, according to Fordham's website.

Branden Frazier, who was a four-year starter for the Rams basketball squad, talked just as much about being a student as he did about his time on the court.

"Coming here and getting my degree, and just being around a bunch of people that supported me, made me who I am," he said. "Basketball isn't everything. Fordham made me a man."

Frank McLaughlin, who was Fordham's athletic director and executive director of intercollegiate athletics from 1985 to 2012, told me back in 2009 that Fordham takes great pride in its academics.

“Are we a great academic institution? Yes we are. Are we proud of that? Yes we are.” McLaughlin said. “If there’s a potential student-athlete our main goal is to make sure that person has the ability or the chance to get a degree. We are not going to become mercenaries and bring somebody in here just to play basketball."

Pecora says that the team's grade point average this year is above a 3.0. That has to count for something. 

We'll see how this whole thing unfolds. Northwestern plans on appealing the decision, but the ball is clearly in the athletes' court.

The landscape of college athletics is changing. Let's hope Fordham's standards stay the same.

Unless otherwise noted, quotes were obtained firsthand.


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