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Paying College Athletes: The Man Who Sued God

paying college athletes

Ernest W. Chambers was a political maverick before the term became fashionable, before it was abused by more cynical politicians.  A civil rights activist, he cared passionately about the economic fate of college athletes, particularly those who played for the University of Nebraska – Lincoln Cornhuskers.

Ernie Chambers was born in Omaha, Nebraska, on July 10, 1937.  He attended Creighton University law school but never sat for a bar exam to practice law.  Instead, he embarked on a life as a civil rights activist and, beginning in 1970, the lone African American member of the Nebraska State Senate (representing the 11th District of North Omaha), a one-house legislature compensating its members at the annual rate of $12,000.

Ernie, characterized as “left of San Francisco,” in office was a skilled orator and master of legislative rules.  He opposed the death penalty, corporal punishment in schools, and (reflecting his agnosticism) prayer during Senate sessions, to name only a few targets.  Was he popular in the innately conservative Nebraska Senate?  Not exactly; one senator introduced a measure that would have ceded Ernie’s district to Iowa.

Ernie Chambers could not help but be aware of the prominence of black athletes in American college sports.  So it is not surprising that he took an interest in the welfare of athletes at the University of Nebraska – Lincoln as early as 1981.  What may be surprising is that he advocated paying athletes.  In 1988, for example, he thought UNL players should be paid by the State of Nebraska as state employees, but then Governor Kay Orr vetoed his bill.  In 1991, his bill was passed to restrict National Collegiate Athletic Association limits on financial benefits to players.  In 1995, he introduced legislation that would classify nonpayment of UNL athletes as a “Class IV” felony, carrying imprisonment of up to 5 years and/or a fine of up to $10,000.  But it was his 2003 legislation that that demonstrates the maturity of his legislative goals.

Nebraska Legislative Bill 688 was introduced by Ernie Chambers on January 22, 2003, as “an act relating to the University of Nebraska – Lincoln; to provide pay for football players.”  The proposed statute carefully makes its case, beginning with the Senate’s findings that (Sec. 1(1) – (5):

  • Scandals are “rampant” within college football;
  • NCAA rules prohibit “reasonable financial compensation,” to the detriment of players from impoverished families;
  • NCAA rules prohibiting player compensation:
    • Are unreasonable;
    • Promote unfairness;
    • Encourage dishonesty in recruiting; and
    • Would be intolerable if applied across the student body.
  • By contrast, players at the U.S. military academies are paid while students and can compete against other institutions which are NCAA members.

Nothing surprising here, but it is a fair point that military institutions such as West Point not only do not charge for tuition and room and board but that cadets are given a “monthly paycheck”, as well as a “pay advance” against cadet expenses.

 LB 688 does not neglect the benefits accruing to the University of Nebraska (Sec. 2 (1) – (10)).  A sampling:

  • UNL receives “millions of dollars” from:
    • Ticket sales;
    • “[lucrative] national television and other electronic broadcast contract, and participation in post-season bowl games;” and
    • Player “exertion” and resulting revenue support.
  • “Maintaining a winning football team has become an integral aspect of the overall business or occupation of the university as an institution;” (emphasis supplied)
  • UNL actively recruits its players, and this recruiting is focused solely upon them as “football players and not scholars;”

There’s more, but you get the picture: on one side you have young, disadvantaged, and vulnerable student-athletes (to use NCAA parlance) and on the other side the weight, prestige, and resources of a very large public university (not to mention the NCAA).  What would it take to right the balance?  Ernie’s legislation had a solution:

“[Football] players shall be entitled to fair financial compensation for playing football.”  (Sec. 3)

From there it was but a hairsbreadth for LB 688 to declare that any Husker football player was an “employee” of UNL, subject to the federal minimum wage, covered by the Nebraska Workers’ Compensation Act, and under UNL rules on wages, hours, and working conditions (Secs. 4 and 5).  One thing the bill refrained from bestowing was the status of professional athlete (Sec. 6).  By its terms the act lay dormant until the adoption of “substantially similar” measures by three other states home to members of the Big 12 Conference, as was UNL (Sec. 7).

At this point, the bill fairly smoldered.  It designated football players “employees” rather than NCAA “student-athletes.”  And as employees rather than amateurs, players would be covered by workers’ compensation.  Workers’ compensation was the bane of colleges trying to limit their on-field liability, and LB 688 took a bead on the notion of student-athlete.  Employees, of course, might also be prone to seduction by unionization.  Moreover, soliciting the participation of other states party to the Big 12 was a not so subtle weapon to deflate the influence of the NCAA over Nebraska’s actions, if not an outright invitation to establish a counter organization to the NCAA.

Despite being unicameral, the Nebraska Senate has its own sausage machine.  Wending its way through processing, the bill that emerged after enrollment and review was dramatically cooler, and so different that I offer a chart of its metamorphosis.  Scrubbed clean were the implications of wages (and minimum wages, at that), workers’ compensation benefits, and collective bargaining.  In was a UNL-determined “stipend,” not intended exclusively for the benefit of football players (Sec. 4), and one that could be unilaterally exchanged by UNL for a reduced number of athletic hours (Sec. 7).  No surprise, then, that the amended bill echoed the prior denial of professional athlete status (Sec. 5).  And the threshold for effectiveness climbed from three sympathetic states within the Big 12 to four (Sec. 6).

In this form, LB 688 passed 26 to 9 and was signed by then Governor Mike Johanns.  The Senate crowed, “Nebraska becomes the first state in the nation to statutorily provide for the payment of a stipend to NCAA Division I college athletes.”  The bill joined the Nebraska Revised Statutes as Sec. 85-1,131 through Sec. 85-1,137.

Ernie Chambers’ next big moment came not in the legislature but in the courts when, on September 14, 2007, he brought suit in Nebraska’s Douglas County District Court, seeking a permanent injunction against God by reason of God’s alleged “terroristic threats” and other actions which have wreaked “widespread death, destruction, and terrorization of millions upon millions of the Earth’s inhabitants.”  Why?  As a gesture against frivolous lawsuits.  The court seemed to agree, albeit ironically: the suit was dismissed for lack of proper service of process, notwithstanding Ernie’s claim that God’s omniscience (if not omnipresence) meant that God in any event had notice of the pending litigation, even if He’d never received a paper copy of the complaint.  Since the suit was dismissed with prejudice, Ernie never got to put on his proofs.

His divine litigation was to be Ernie’s public swansong.  After about 39 years of service in the Nebraska legislature (a record), term limits put an end to his career in January 2009. Nevertheless, after a three-year hiatus, Mr. Chambers has thrown his hat in the ring to run for his old District 11 seat in the November 6, 2012, general election.

And Nebraska’s college player law?  It’s still on the books, although it’s languishing.  At the time of its passage in 2003, the Big 12 included schools in Colorado, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, Oklahoma, and Texas, none of whose legislatures enacted similar statutes.  In fact, the University of Colorado, the University of Missouri, and Texas A&M University have all since left the conference.  Even UN-L decamped to the welcome of the Big Ten in 2011.

Ernie Chambers.  He tried to help college athletes.  He sued God.  God bless him.

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Paul W. Creasy