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Key Clarkson hockey player Tansey supports the right to unionize

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A Clarkson University hockey player who is expected to be a team leader on defense next season supports the idea of college athletes having the right to unionize.

Kevin Tansey was speaking in reaction to the National Labor Relations Board’s ruling last week that may affect football players at Northwestern University, and that could lead to major changes for NCAA teams in the north country.

“I would agree with it for some sports,” Tansey, a sophomore, said this week. “Obviously football players want to make sure they have health care for injuries past college. I think that makes sense. It might not work for all sports.

“Players will want to go to places where they are more insured or could market themselves as a player.”

Hockey players at Clarkson and St. Lawrence universities, the area’s only Division I programs, may ultimately have the right to unionize. However, Tansey and Paul Geiger agreed that a college athlete is not an employee of a school.

“It’s a little weird to consider yourself an employee of the school,” said Geiger, a sophomore who was an assistant captain this season. “We play for the school. We play because we love the sport. I don’t consider us working for the school, to be honest.”

“I like to think of myself as just a student who plays at the school,” Tansey said. “I have peers who don’t play a sport and peers who do play a sport, and we are all on the same page. We are just college students. When push comes to shove, we (students) are all the same.”

Division I hockey teams have the right to file a petition to the NLRB’s Region 3 office in Buffalo that could allow student athletes to get status as employees and unionize, said John Gaal, labor and employment lawyer at Bond, Schoeneck and King law firm of Syracuse. Division III programs, by contrast, do not have the ability to unionize because athletes do not receive compensation with scholarships like Division I athletes do.

“Clarkson and St. Lawrence universities are good examples, because hockey teams play at the Division I level and can give school aid,” Gaal said. “So (the ruling) could have application in respect to those programs at those schools.”

The Chicago NLRB’s decision is being appealed, and it could take years to determine whether the ruling will be upheld, Gaal said. But that appeal won’t prevent other Division I teams, in the meantime, from seeking the right to unionize by filing petitions at their respective NLRB regional offices.

According to federal law, Northwestern football players have until April 25 to vote on whether to authorize the College Athletes Players Association, or CAPA, to represent them.

“I think it would be tougher for hockey to do it, just because we’re not as high income as Division I football,” St. Lawrence junior forward Patrick Doherty said. “If you look at the bowl systems, they’re making millions of dollars at least and it’s all on these kids who don’t see a single dime. So I can completely see where they’re coming from.”

“As (NCAA) Division I athletes, we all put a lot of work into what we do,” Geiger said. “Sometimes it can be difficult for guys, more in the football and basketball area where the NCAA makes so much money off (those sports). It can be difficult for guys to understand that. Some may come from families that can’t fully support them. It’s a tough situation to be involved in. The NCAA prides themselves on the amateur status of sports. At the same time it’s tough for guys to be able to even maintain schoolwork or get a degree they want to get.”

Tansey added unionization would not happen by the time he finishes at Clarkson in two years.

The debate continues on whether NCAA athletes should be paid, or if they are exploited.

“If you are on a full (scholarship) you get room and board, school and food paid for,” Geiger said. “We are coming out of school with a clean slate basically. We won’t have any student loans. During the school year you get everything paid for. I don’t know why (some) people are saying they need all this extra money. You can go home and get a (summer) job so during the school year you have money to support yourself. Even if you stay here you can find a (summer) job around here to maintain enough money for school.”

While Doherty said he doesn’t have an immediate opinion on the issue on whether college players should be allowed to unionize, he expressed that student athletes sometimes do face financial challenges.”

“I understand where they’re coming from,” Doherty said. “Because being an athlete, it’s a commitment and it’s a challenge in itself. To be able to go to school and do all your work and be the best you can be on the ice, it’s really tough.

“I can’t get another job at the same time,” Doherty added. “If I want to be with the hockey team next winter, I need to do a job this summer that allows me to train. And it’s tough to balance it in the summer. ... Then during the academic year, you need money to go out to dinner or even to buy books, or even get pizza once in a while. It’s tough sometimes.”

Said Tansey, “You can’t complain much when people are paying for your school. We get great support here. You get a great education here. You want to go somewhere where you know that they take good care of players.”

Clarkson head coach Casey Jones and St. Lawrence head coach Greg Carvel both declined comment.

Times reporter Ted Booker and The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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