Move toward a college football player's union should be a wake-up call for the NCAA

Apr 4, 2014

Northwestern's Kain Colter is tackled during a game with Army in 2011. Colter has argued the players should be allowed to form a union.
Northwestern's Kain Colter is tackled during a game with Army in 2011. Colter has argued the players should be allowed to form a union.
Credit West Point / Flickr

Last week’s ruling made a big splash, but it’s actually very narrow. The decision by the National Labor Relations Board applies only to private schools. Further, the players still have to vote on it, and the university is going to appeal, in any case.

But the players have been very shrewd, starting with their leader, senior quarterback Kain Colter. I got to know him while researching my latest book, and he’s a very impressive young man.   

Colter is a pre-med major who often had to miss workouts to attend lab. He’s also wisely not asking for money, but post-graduate health care for injuries suffered while playing. It’s pretty hard to argue against that.

Further, as a graduating senior, Colter is not acting out of self-interest. He’s working for those who will come after him – while potentially jeopardizing his appeal to NFL teams.  

He’s also made it clear that Northwestern has been very good to him, from President Schapiro to his coach, Pat Fitzgerald. Northwestern is a model of how college athletics should be done.

So what’s going to happen next?

... what the Northwestern players are asking for is exactly what the NCAA, the leagues and the schools should have been providing for decades anyway.

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 providing scholarships year-by-year. A scholarship should automatically cover the players’ entire education, even after their eligibility runs out.

It’s difficult to finish in even five years 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 obscene practice of paying bonuses to head coaches, assistant coaches and even athletic directors for milestones the players achieve.

 

Last week, when Ohio State wrestler Logan Stieber won the national title, his athletic director, Gene Smith, received an $18,000 bonus for Stieber’s work.

Stieber, of course, couldn't take an extra dime.  

Doesn’t anybody else find that outrageous?

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 they might.

... both parties should be careful what they wish for, or the law of unintended consequences could obliterate the benefits both sides receive.

Most college athletes are actually getting a pretty good deal. They get free tuition, meals, travel, and training – benefits that easily exceed a half million dollars per player at Northwestern.

If they become employees, they might have to pay taxes on their scholarships, and everything else. In fact, both parties should be careful what they wish for, or the law of unintended consequences could obliterate the benefits both sides receive.  

For now, the NLRB’s decision is less important legally than it is symbolically. For the first time, a group of players has formally organized. And in the process, they’ve discovered they have no power – until they threaten to sit down, together – then 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.