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Dysfunctional CHLPA Going the Long Way Around NCAA Rules

A student-athlete union is the holy grail of would-be NCAA reformers. All that is needed is for student-athletes to unionize, the theory goes, and the money and protection will flow undisturbed. In truth, creating a certified union of student-athletes, despite the current legal hurdles, is probably the easiest piece of the puzzle. Winning the collective bargain negotiation is the hard part.

The Canadian Hockey League Players Association will probably be held out as a cautionary tale by opponents of a possible college-athlete union. Many of the wrong elements will be highlighted. There is no danger, for instance, of a college-athlete union having a noted fraudster as a front-man. The cautionary tale is what happens when a group decides they know how the NCAA works and gets it wrong.

A Brief Version of the Brief History of the CHLPA

The CHLPA was formed this summer and pushed to be certified as the collective bargaining unit for CHL players. The Canadian Hockey League is designated as major junior A hockey. Major junior A hockey is an odd mix of amateur developmental league and professional affiliate clubs. All players receive a small stipend, but some were drafted by the NHL, signed contracts, and received a stipend.

The major goal of the CHLPA was not to increase the stipend, start a pension, or any of the other things traditional associated with player unions. Rather, the goal of the CHLPA was to make it so athletes would not have their NCAA eligibility impacted by playing in the CHL. To do so, the CHLPA tried to get CHL rules changed to conform with the NCAA’s definition of an amateur league. That included calling the league amateur rather than professional and preventing players on NHL contracts from playing in the league.

The CHLPA got as far as changing some language in the league bylaws and had conversations with NCAA staff members about interpretations of NCAA rules. But that’s before the organization unraveled in spectacular fashion. The union’s spokesman, Derek Clarke, had his identity questioned and was believed at one point to be Randy Gumbley, who had been convicted of fraud in multiple cases involving major junior hockey. The real Derek Clarke turned out to be Gumbley’s brother, Glenn, although the CHL concluded that Randy was also likely involved with the league.

The union is still technically alive although its executive director has resigned and the odds that it can successfully organize players and fund itself through a proposed $1.50 tariff on CHL tickets are pretty slim.

Why The CHL is a Problem

All the coverage of the CHLPA has two threads running through it. First, that the CHLPA’s goals were ultimately good. Second, and more importantly, that the CHLPA’s plan was the correct one. The latter belies a fundamental lack of understanding about why playing in the CHL affects an athlete’s eligibility. Here are two quotes about the eligibility issue from Guy Flaming of the blog Coming Down the Pipe:

I mean, it doesn’t really matter what the coaches, players or media seem to think when it comes to the NCAA because, as it’s been described to us, the organization is layer upon layer of bureaucracy that often drives its own crazy.

How on Earth can the CHLPA hope to convince the NCAA to change their rules, rules that affect every sport under the NCAA umbrella, simply for hockey?

And another from Chris Peters of The United States of Hockey:

I find that hard to believe considering the NCAA doesn’t often listen to its own coaches and athletic directors about making changes to their amateurism rules. Now they’d start listening to an entity that has questionable credentials? I don’t think so.

I could list the rules passed both good and bad that were pushed by coaches and ADs for a long time. Two examples from basketball are enough: the ever-shorter amount of time athletes have to withdraw from the NBA draft and a summer practice rule that includes virtually no academic component. The knee-jerk response is that is basketball, the NCAA’s sacred cow. Fine, here’s another: the rule that causes CHL players to lose eligibility.

In 2009, the NCAA Division I Amateurism Cabinet offered Proposal 2009–22. 2009–22 was one of the biggest recent changes to the amateurism rules. It was designed to do two things: unify the delayed enrollment rules across all sports, and allow athletes to play on professional teams prior to enrollment without penalty, so long as they themselves did not become professional.

Two sports were left out. Skiing opted out of the proposal because it had no benefit for the ski community. Skiers do not participate on professional teams and they would still not be allowed to accept endorsement money. The new delayed enrollment rules would shorten the amount of time skiers could compete after high school, which would reduce the pool of potential college skiers.

Men’s ice hockey was excluded as well. Partially it was for the same reason as skiing: a shorter delayed enrollment rule harmed players playing junior hockey after high school. But major junior A hockey was also identified as an issue:

If the proposal were adopted with men’s ice hockey included, many more prospective student-athletes would likely elect to participate in Major Junior A hockey prior to initial collegiate enrollment. They would likely jeopardize their eligibility status by being influenced to accept more than actual and necessary expenses, to sign with an agent, or to sign a professional contract. Further, participation in Major Junior A hockey would likely be detrimental to prospective student-athletes’ academic success given the demands of participation in that league.

Where did the Amateurism Cabinet get this information?

After reviewing feedback from the men’s ice hockey community, the Amateurism Cabinet agreed that the legislative changes included in the proposal would be detrimental to men’s ice hockey prospective student-athletes, to Division I institutions that sponsor men’s ice hockey and to the performance of United States national teams.

So after listening to the people involved with the sports (as we are told the NCAA never does), a rule now exists specifically for men’s ice hockey and skiing (as we are told the NCAA would never do).

What the CHLPA Had Wrong

The CHLPA’s plan had two fatal flaws. The first is well documented, particularly by Chris Peters. Major junior hockey is unique in that its status as a professional league is written right into the NCAA bylaws:

Bylaw Major Junior Ice Hockey.
Ice hockey teams in the United States and Canada, classified by the Canadian Hockey Association as major junior teams, are considered professional teams under NCAA legislation.

Now in theory, the CHL could change how it operates enough that despite the bylaw, in practice it does not affect an athlete’s NCAA eligibility. Athletes would have to go through reinstatement, but that reinstatement would be without penalty or condition. And eventually the Legislative Council or Board of Directors would quietly eliminate the bylaw. But that’s just a theory, and as the articles linked above discuss, getting the CHL to change that much is a long shot.

The biggest problem for the CHLPA is that it arrived on the scene at least one year too late. The easiest way to get eligibility for CHLPA players is an NCAA proposal that eliminates hockey from the exemption to the general rule and makes it the same as every other sport. A slightly harder version would be a proposal that gives hockey the best of both worlds: participation on professional teams before enrollment like every other sport with the old, more forgiving delayed enrollment rules it currently enjoys with swimming.

Had the CHLPA existed in Spring 2010, it might have been possible to build momentum around the second, more complex proposal. During a regular NCAA legislative cycle, a proposal specifically for hockey would be ignored by most people since so few institutions sponsor it. Voting is weird as well because primary, multi-sport conferences vote on legislation but prior to 2013–14, no primary conferences sponsors hockey. New exceptions or alterations to recently passed NCAA bylaws are also a regular feature of NCAA legislation.

Had the CHLPA sprung up even in Summer 2011, it might still have had a chance to push for change to NCAA legislation. After the Presidential Retreat, the Rules Working Group went to work slimming down the Division I Manual. An organized effort of both outside organizations and NCAA members could have slipped the first, simpler proposal into the RWG amateurism proposals that the Board of Directors will vote on in January.

In both cases, the biggest hurdle would have been building support in the NCAA membership for an idea they had rejected just a year or two earlier. Now with the normal legislative process shut down until at least 2014–15, the Rules Working Group moving on to different topics, and the collapse of the CHLPA, college hockey and the CHL may have missed their chance. Major junior A hockey as a professional league that affects NCAA eligibility could be re-entrenched as the status quo before either a new union gets organized and has a chance to change NCAA legislation.

Lessons Learned

Contrary to popular belief, the NCAA does listen to both its sport committees and outside organizations like coaches association. Just because the NCAA does not always bend to the whims of commentators, coaches, a national team, or the rest of the development system does not mean it is totally ignoring them.

The CHLPA had a noble goal: expand the range of opportunities offered to young athletes by keeping as many doors open to them as possible. But aside from the self-inflicted damage caused by scandal and controversy, the CHLPA made a big mistake: it assumed that changing NCAA legislation was impossible. Even that decision might have seemed reasonable last summer, when the NHL lockout and the current state of the NCAA legislative process made professional hockey look more malleable than college athletics.

But to slam the door shut on the NCAA and try to “fix” the CHL was a poor tactical and strategic decision. The better move would have been to build common cause with the NCAA while trying to change NCAA rules. The CHLPA could have used the potential ticket tariff funds to start policing agents, and pushed the CHL to reimburse more actual expenses rather than issuing weekly cash stipends. That both gives the CHLPA a reason to exist in the short-term while it pursues what turns out must be a long-term goal of getting NCAA eligibility for CHL players.

The remnants of the CHLPA are now looking to see the mission handed off to a more established professional union. Whether that revives the push to change how major junior hockey is treated by the NCAA remains to be seen. But if it does, the new organization must remember that however much work it does without the NCAA, working with association is still the best option.

Should the NCAA change the rules around Major Junior A hockey? Let us know what you think in the comments section below, or connect with us on Facebook, Twitter, or Google+!

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