The Northwestern players union: What it means, and what it doesn’t

[To listen to the audio version, please click here: Northwestern Union 2014]

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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19 comments Leave a comment  

  • Dan Streiff April 4, 2014 at 8:52 am

    John: As usual, very well said. I live about three miles from Northwestern and I would suspect that 90% of football fans in the area think Northwestern does a great job on all fronts. And Cain Colter always has been very well respected as player. Having said that, I suspect that (a) this local Chicago NLRB ruling will be overturned in Washington and hopely, (b) the NCAA will enact the changes you suggest. I would bet that the leadership of the Congress will politely “suggest” to the NCAA that these changes be made NOW or the whole “game” will come crashing down.

    We can hope. Thanks for the great books. Anything on the horizon ??

    • johnubacon April 4, 2014 at 10:13 am

      Great thanks, Dan — and they’re better be some books on the horizon! I’ll let you know when the ink on the contract dries.


  • John W Minton Jr April 4, 2014 at 9:08 am


    Thanks for the reminder about unintended consequences. I will follow with disinterested curiosity to see how the powers that be mess this up. Rosa Parks should have been the one with a statue on The Mall. I don’t see any Rosa Parks in college football other than yourself, a very
    considerable presence. Thanks for what you are doing to bring rational solutions to an irrational situation.


    • johnubacon April 9, 2014 at 10:44 am

      Great thanks, Bomber John!

  • Mike Kenn April 4, 2014 at 10:08 am

    Has anyone considered if the players are deemed employees, their scholarship would be viewed as a gratuity by the IRS and then taxable as personal income?

    • johnubacon April 4, 2014 at 10:13 am

      Yep, from the piece: If the student-athletes become employees, the IRS could easily conclude they have to pay taxes on their scholarships, and everything else.

      They would also have to pay union dues. How many student athletes are up for that?

      Thanks for reading, Mike, and replying, as always.

      • Meg Smith April 10, 2014 at 3:05 pm

        Thanks for clarifying all of this John! (And don’t tell Kenny that I read your column on this issue first.) Another point: if the students *are* deemed employees and *do* have to pay tax on their “earnings,” who will really end up paying those taxes … their parents? The plot thickens.

  • Greg Shea April 4, 2014 at 10:43 am

    Strong. Thanks for weighing in. Don’t forget about the University of Miami (the U) as one of the prominent private schools in the discussion.


  • Rich McCoin April 4, 2014 at 1:09 pm

    Great Job, as always. I think this is great that the players finally stand up an say enough. Even at such a fine school as NU. It also lets you know the class and courage these young men have. My question is this, “What does college athletics mean? Is the student athlete someone who aspires to become more than a football/basketball/(your sport) player or is he/she just there trying out for a pro team??? I believe that if the FLRB allows the unionization to continue pro sports need to contribute to pay players or simply create minor leagues that they control and leave college sports alone.

  • Paul Gaecke April 4, 2014 at 7:26 pm

    I keep thinking that there’s an elephant in the room and no one is talking about it. Nothing the NLRB or a players’ union does or doesn’t do trumps Title IX of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. And other federal and state laws, as well.

    Over and above Title IX, another law that comes to mind is Workman’s Compensation. How many football players could demonstrate lifelong impairment due to injuries, justifying Workman’s Comp payments for the rest of their lives? How expensive could the Workman’s Comp insurance premiums get for college athletic departments?

    If the players in major sports unionize, negotiate and achieve additional benefits, it seems to me that Title IX says those same those benefits or comparable expenditures have to be extended to women’s sports. In that the vast majority of schools run deficits in their athletic departments, wouldn’t the cost of these “double benefits” (the incremental cost for the unionized men’s programs plus the Title IX-required spending on women’s sports) further erode the financial condition of most college athletic departments?

    Some of the bigger schools might be able to pass those additional costs on to ticketholders in the form of price increases. But the vast majority of schools will not have that option and may have to begin to cut costs to fund the additional expenses of negotiated and legally-required benefits. How long will it be before such cost cutting takes the form of dropping some non-revenue men’s sports as women’s teams?

    If this regional NLRB decision is upheld by both the national NLRB and eventually the Supreme Court, this may be the worst thing that has ever happened to intercollegiate athletics.

    • johnubacon April 9, 2014 at 10:45 am

      Excellent point — one I already have in my notes for my columns ahead. I’ll keep you posted.

      • Russ Holland April 10, 2014 at 6:34 am


        Excellent Post! I also have a blog and posted earlier that this ruling would in fact give the Universities an out when it came to Title IX as the law specifically addresses “Student Athletes” and the Federal Judge in the NWU case has ruled the Football Players “Employees”. One could now logically conclude that as employees, the Football players no longer fall under the Title IX count. In a way, it could be a win-win. More mens athletics could be brought back (assuming there’s a budget, of course) and as long as there isn’t a demand for compensation as some claim (I don’t think there will be) it could work out really well.

        Here’s a couple of links to my blog where I make my points:

        Look forward to seeing more on this topic!

    • Doug Ferguson April 9, 2014 at 6:31 pm

      Graduate teaching assistants are employees, and don’t pay taxes on tuition remission, so not all the players would be paying tax on all their benefits, but you are correct to note that the tax implications might deter players unions (as well as, as you notes, union dues).

      I don’t think the Title IX implications of an expansion of football player benefits would be a game-stopper. Giving all athletes the multiyear scholarships, medical coverage, and the rest wouldn’t cost much more than giving those to the football and basketball players, IMO. First, the “non-revenue-sport” players don’t face the medical problems that the so-called revenue sport players do. Secondly, non-revenue-sport players already graduate at high rates and so tend to use their scholarships for the full four years and then leave school to live out their non-athletic lives.

      Schools might have to redirect some funds away from megabuck coaching salaries and obscene facilities (cough.. statue of Bo… cough), but that would be all to the good.

      As you note, the CAPA has played their hand well, and the NCAA should recognize the wisdom of preempting these kinds of unions. I’d even argue that the NCAA would increase its fan base by doing so. There are a lot of people turned off by the current state of college athletics who might return if these reforms were made.

  • Randy Dean April 9, 2014 at 10:10 am

    John, hopefully your optimistic assessment of college sports unionization is accurate.

    My guess is that this ruling will likely reduce interest in college football in the long-term as I know many who will not be interested in watching a unionized workforce represent their alma mater in football games.

    • johnubacon April 9, 2014 at 10:47 am


      Not sure where you divined my “optimistic assessment of college sports unionization,” but I am not optimistic in the least about the results of a college football union. Quite the opposite, like you, I believe it would be the beginning of the end of something millions of people love.

      As I wrote, if the NCAA is smart, they’ll address the issues I’ve listed above — and a few more — and keep the players from resorting to a union. Of course, that is a very big “if,” isn’t it?

      Thanks for reading, and for writing.

  • Steve Sharik April 9, 2014 at 10:31 am

    “(T)he same protection the universities give their employees who are injured on the job – and few jobs are more dangerous than football.”

    Your last comment is exactly why they don’t give this protection to football players–the financial risk involved. The ultimate professional sports cash cow, the NFL, doesn’t provide such compensation. In fact, they don’t have legislated, guaranteed contracts, so if a player suffers a career-ending injury, the team that employs him simply cuts him, and is off the financial hook (assuming it didn’t negotiate guaranteed money to that player).

    • johnubacon April 9, 2014 at 10:49 am


      Regarding the NFL’s union contract, what you say is very true — and shameless, in my opinon. A $9 billion organization — legally non-profit, incredibly — should have no problem paying the medical bills of the 1500 or so employees on the field. And if they can’t, they should shut down.

      Why the NFLPA has put up with this for so long is a mystery to me. But that doesn’t mean college players should.

      My two cents, as usual.


  • Delano Rogers April 9, 2014 at 12:22 pm

    Great article. I too believe there’s an elephant in the room — the money! The dollars have exponentially grown to be so large that it is patently unfair that everyone makes money off of the efforts of the players, but the players themselves. Frankly, it’s un-American! Rewind to the ’50s-’70s, and there was not nearly the same disparity in how the dollars were spent.

    Another reform that the NCAA should include is to have player representation on advisory boards at the college level and NCAA level. The players (men & women) deserve to have a voice and voting power within these institutions. That would also diminish the need to unionize. Keep up the great work!

  • Aaron Ruhlig April 9, 2014 at 4:22 pm

    In the interest of full disclosure, I love college athletics and 95% of me opposes CAPA merely because it jeopardizes a status quo that entertains me and brings me unpredictable levels of joy, heartbreak, and drama. I concede that there is exploitation in the system and I want that expunged, but I’m not sure how.

    I support a lot of what CAPA is asking for or you’re advocating for – medical benefits, banning oversigning, coach/AD bonuses. I’d also extend the guaranteed 4 year scholarships even further – make them guaranteed through graduation. If funds allow for “paying players,” I’m in favor of a cash graduation bonus as the only way to implement that. The NCAA can create annually adjusted sport-by-sport caps based on the numbers given to them by ADs and then schools can offer a prospect a scholarship (again, guaranteed through graduation) with an attached dollar amount as a graduation bonus.

    My final thought is that I don’t see CAPA having any true strength as a bargaining entity. My observation of pro sports the last few decades is that even pro athletes have relatively limited bargaining power compared to owners and those pro athletes have bloated bank accounts. If schools were to lock out unionized college athletes, I don’t see the athletes standing firm in that, especially those coming from disadvantaged backgrounds. We cheer for our schools not because of the players, but because of the school colors, band, tradition, and our degree. The players have always cycled in and out after a few years. Let’s just say this: if a college needed replacement players the line would encircle campus a few times over.


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