Pay young athletes their due

It’s a good thing that hockey players with the Everett Silvertips have a seat on the bench, because they probably couldn’t afford one in the stands.

By most spectator sports standards, tickets for Silvertips games at Xfinity Arena aren’t unreasonable; you can get a seat for $15 to $40. But what the players receive as a weekly stipend could be considered unreasonable. Players in the Western Hockey League, those between 16 and 19 years of age, get a weekly stipend of $35 to $50; weekly stipends for 20-year-olds are $120 to $150, during the 72-game season.

True, the players don’t pay their own room and board, as the WHL teams in Washington — the Tips, the Seattle Thunderbirds, the Spokane Chiefs and the Tri-City Americans — rely on host families to feed and house most players. And the Canadian Hockey League, the parent organization of the WHL and two sister leagues in Canada, offers to provide a scholarship of one year of undergraduate tuition for every season of play in the league.

Yet, junior hockey, which develops talent for the National Hockey League, is facing three class-action suits in Canada that seek hundreds of millions of dollars in wages and benefits for players in the system. Minor League Baseball is facing its own class-action suit over the same issue. The league maximum monthly pay for a minor league ballplayer is $1,100, better than hockey but still less than the state’s minimum wage.

Closer to home, the state Department of Labor and Industries is continuing an investigation, following a 2013 complaint over working conditions, that could find that the players should be considered employees who are subject to state laws on minimum wage and child labor.

Many will say that these young players accept low pay as part of paying their dues while they work for their shot to make it in the NHL or MLB. But most don’t make it that far. About 7 percent of young drafted ballplayers reach the Major League level. Only 5 percent of young hockey players advance to the NHL.

Team and league officials testified last week before the state Senate’s Commerce and Labor Committee and said that if state law isn’t changed to classify amateur athletes as non-employees, they might be forced to shut down or leave the state.

Threat or prediction, that’s a short-term response to whatever determination Labor and Industries makes; the issue would follow them to any state or province where they might relocate. The question of whether players for junior hockey and for Minor League Baseball are amateur athletes or employees is tipping toward “employee.” And those leagues will have to find a way to comply, which means fans will likely have to dig deeper to support their teams.

Even the NCAA, which has used the student-athlete classification to its benefit, has had to respond to the issue and is facing attempts to unionize players. Junior hockey and Minor League Baseball can’t make that claim of nonprofit status.

“The hockey teams are not universities, they’re for-profit businesses,” Theodore Charney, a Toronto lawyer who is pursuing one of the class-action suits in Canada, told the Associated Press last week.

The Everett Silvertips lead their division with 12 games remaining in the regular season and have clinched a playoff berth. Heightened expectations for the Seattle Mariners should bring increased attention to the Everett AquaSox when their season beings in June.

Both teams are beloved and valued in Everett and Snohomish County; but in supporting our teams we also need to support the players.

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