Last week, in a surprising decision, the National Labor Relations Board granted the Northwestern University football players the right to unionize, if they want.
But what does that mean? What doesn’t it mean? And how might this change the future of college football?
The NLRB’s ruling made a big splash, but it’s actually very narrow. The decision applies only to private schools. There are only a handful or two that play big time college football – usually about one per major conference – a short list that includes universities like Duke, Rice, Vanderbilt, Stanford and USC. Further, the Northwestern players still have to vote to unionize – not a given – and no matter how they vote, the university is going to appeal the NLRB’s decision.
But the Wildcat players have been very shrewd, and will be hard to dismiss. That starts with their leader, senior quarterback Kain Colter. I got to know him pretty well while researching my latest book, Fourth and Long, and I can tell you he’s one of the more impressive young men to play the game today.
Colter is a pre-med major who often had to miss summer workouts to attend afternoon labs. The group he’s formed – the somewhat redundant College Athletes Players Association (CAPA) – is also wisely not asking for money, but post-graduate health care for injuries suffered while playing. Seems to me it’s pretty hard for any university – created to improve the lives of its students, after all – to argue against that.
Because he’s a graduating senior, Colter is not acting out of self-interest, either. He’s working for those who will come after him – while potentially jeopardizing his appeal to the NFL teams who might draft him this spring. He’s also made it clear that Northwestern has been very good to him, from President Schapiro to athletic director Jim Phillips to his coach, Pat Fitzgerald. Having studied the program throughout 2012, I can tell you unequivocally that Northwestern is a model of how college athletics should be done.
So what’s going to happen next? Anybody who claims they really know is either stupid or silly or both. We have never been here before. But we do know a few things already.
First, what the Northwestern players are asking for is exactly what the NCAA, the leagues and the schools should have been providing for decades anyway: health care for injuries sustained while playing for their schools. In other words, the same protection the universities give their employees who are injured on the job – and few jobs are more dangerous than football.
While they’re at it, the NCAA should end the very cynical policy of allowing one-year scholarships. That’s right: when an athlete gets a scholarship, it’s usually not a four- or five-year deal, but a year-by-year contract, leaving him entirely at the mercy of the coach. Two years ago, the NCAA finally allowed schools to provide four-year scholarships, but still doesn’t require it. At an upright school like Northwestern, which implemented four-year scholarships as soon as they were permitted to, the players don’t have anything to worry about. In fact, they’re granted scholarships for up to five years — which is why so many of their players earn master’s degrees before they hang up their helmets. But at too many other schools, the coaches exploit this shady arrangement every season.
A scholarship should automatically cover the players’ entire education, even if their careers end due to injuries or disappointing play, so long as they’re making an honest effort – and they should keep that scholarship until they earn their degree, even after their eligibility runs out. It’s difficult to finish a bachelor’s degree while working 40 hours a week on your sport – and that’s what it takes, no matter what the NCAA claims.
Michigan quarterback Devin Gardner is a serious student, who asks more questions per hour than the rest of his classmates combined. He does very well in class, though not as well as he’d like. When I asked him once what he would be if he wasn’t the Michigan quarterback, he thought about it, then said, “An ‘A’ student.”
If the NCAA is serious about the “student” part of “student-athlete,” now would be a great time to prove it.
The NCAA should also ban the increasingly obscene practice of paying bonuses to head coaches, assistant coaches and even athletic directors for milestones the players themselves achieve. Last week, when Ohio State wrestler Logan Stieber won his third consecutive national title without a loss – an incredible feat — his athletic director, Gene Smith, automatically received an $18,000 bonus for Stieber’s thousands of hours of work. Stieber, of course, couldn’t take an extra dime.
Doesn’t the non-profit NCAA find that outrageous?
They should also outlaw, completely, the practice of “oversigning.” This occurs when unethical coaches promise more incoming freshmen scholarships than they have to give out. When the players all arrive on campus in August, the coaches conduct what amounts to an on-campus try-out to whittle their numbers down to the 25 scholarships per class they are allowed to grant. The losers go home, having already turned down offers from other schools, and try to pick up the pieces.
If the NCAA rights these wrongs, I’d bet the Northwestern players call their efforts a success – as they should – and drop their campaign.
And there are good reasons why they might. Most college athletes are actually getting a pretty good deal. In my previous book, Three and Out, I calculated that an out-of-state, fifth-year senior at Michigan’s free tuition, meals and travel easily come to $580,000 – and that doesn’t count the cost of the academic counseling and tutoring, the strength and conditioning, or the athletic training – let alone the cost of those buildings. If the student-athletes become employees, the IRS could easily conclude they have to pay taxes on their scholarships, and everything else.
If the players do unionize, and become employees of their schools, I also wonder if their new identity will diminish the appeal of college sports. College fans aren’t attracted to excellence – any pro team can beat any college team, in any sport – they’re attracted to romance. If the magic bubble bursts, the fans might decide to stop supporting the venture, and then who’s paying the bills?
In fact, both parties should be careful what they wish for, or the law of unintended consequences could obliterate the benefits both sides receive. I honestly don’t think either side has given the long-term consequences of their actions very much thought.
For now, the NLRB’s decision is less important legally than it is symbolically – more Rosa Parks than Brown v. Board of Education. For the first time, a group of players has formally organized, and been officially recognized. And in the process, they’ve discovered something I finally realized in the past couple years: the players have no power — until they threaten to sit down, together. Then, suddenly, they have all of it.
I hope the people who run college athletics are listening – but their hearing has been impaired for so long, I wouldn’t bet on it.
They should do the right thing, and do it now, or risk losing everything.
Seems like an easy decision to you and me – but that’s why we’re not the NCAA.
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