The morals, and money, of major junior sport


National Post, 3 January 2019

The U.S. collegiate system encourages athletes to stay in school. In Canada, that remains true for football, but not for hockey

In the early days of a new year, sports fans on both sides of the border shift their attention from the professional to the amateur. The world junior championships, played this week in Vancouver and Victoria, dominate the hockey world, and south of the border attention is dominated by the college football championship.

But that the shift is from professional athletes to amateur ones does not mean a shift away from commerce. Major junior hockey is a significant business in Canada, though not as massive a business enterprise as American college football. All of which raises key questions about how athletes develop and whether they are exploited.

The exploitation question gets more attention, and certainly did so in 2018. But what is best for the development of young athletes is also important, given that the vast majority do not go on to play professional sports.

A $180-million class-action lawsuit has been filed against the Canadian Hockey League — parent of the Ontario, Western and Quebec major junior leagues — seeking lost wages. The claim is that the 16- to 20-year-olds who play major junior are involved in a business and should be paid at least minimum wage. How that will proceed in the courts remains to be seen, but in November, the Ontario Hockey League commissioner asked the Ontario government for an exemption from the relevant labour laws, including minimum wages. Apparently such exemptions already exist in seven other provinces.

The CHL argues that players are “student-athletes” and are analogous to those who play for a high school or university team. Indeed, the CHL runs a scholarship program so that for every season in the league, a player gets a year of university tuition, books and fees paid.

Major junior franchises are certainly businesses. The most successful teams draw more than 5,000 fans to a game, and ticket prices are comparable to the minor professional leagues in the United States. Financial information disclosed by Ontario teams as part of the lawsuit found team revenues ranged from $1.3 million to $6.5 million. The London Knights reported a profit of $1.9 million.

So are the players student-athletes, or employees who should be paid? In American college football and basketball, the players are certainly student-athletes, yet there is still a perennial argument about whether they should be paid.

A recent HBO film, Student Athlete, produced by basketball star LeBron James, likened the current system to slavery, where the largely black athletes generate massive income for largely white colleges, and their labour is not paid. (James himself went straight from high school to the NBA, skipping college altogether.)

The response there is straightforward. Players get admitted to university on a preferential basis (most would not otherwise meet the minimum academic admission requirements) and are given generous scholarships. For many it is a free university education, enhancing their life prospects far beyond what would have been available to them absent college sports.

It is true that American universities are not legally businesses in the same way that CHL franchises are, but they operate on a much more commercial basis. In most states, the highest paid public employee is the head football or basketball coach.

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