Northwestern’s Players Union Ruling Changing College Athletics Has Long Way To Go


Jan 28, 2014; Chicago, IL, USA; Northwestern University quarterback Kain Colter speaks during a press conference for CAPA College Athletes Players Association at the Hyatt Regency. Mandatory Credit: Matt Marton-USA TODAY Sports

Is Unionization Neigh for College Athletes? Do not worry, the world has not ended.

Yesterday the Chicago district of the National Labor Relations Board ruled that Northwestern student athletes would be allowed to vote on their unionization. Is this another step against a tyrannical oligarchy or a harbinger of doom for college athletics?

Mainly it is a step.  All of this will be under appeal, Northwestern athletes voting for unionization (they only require a 35% vote to unionize which is counter to most peoples’ understanding of democracy) will by largely symbolic, as the NCAA will have the better part of a decade to appeal this.  Before this is done, all three branches of the federal government will be required to weigh the merits of each side, and if you can predict the outcome universally and accurately you can save us all dollars and headaches.

The NCAA does not really have a case to stand on, unless you count Newton’s first law, which unless you factor money into the equation (Newton doubtfully utilized capital when devising his laws of physics), should be halted by Congress and the Courts.  The NCAA was formed to ensure NCAA athletics be fair, and to eject gamblers from sport.  As we all know that worked out tremendously, as there is no gambling on college athletics and that no players are taking money under the table.  Read the last two sentences again.    The NCAA was organized more than a century ago with an announced mandate to protect college athletes.

If you are banging your head against something right now, I completely understand.  The NCAA model is ridiculous.  During the late 1930s and 1940s when my family members were playing football at a Pac-12 school (PCC at the time), they were given nice summer jobs at the local race track as a fringe benefit for playing.   There were no NCAA investigations, but certainly they could not have been associating with gamblers at a race track right?

That was the 40s, then we saw the point shaving scandals in New York during the 1950s, and things began to change.  The NCAA moved form a single part time employee, to the convoluted, wonderfully profitable, institution that exists today.  There is no way to completely examine the exasperation that we often feel for the NCAA here, but I highly recommend Schooled: The Price of College Sportsif you have 85 minutes to spend on a subject that can only take a lifetime to understand  (streaming with the red envelope company.)

The NCAA’s argument is valid.  If you had money in college, it was due to your folks’ bank account, not the school, as most of us worked through school. I remember talking to a family friend who was on full scholarship at another Pac-12 institution while I was an undergraduate.  She complained that she could not live with her $450 per month stipend, as it did not warrant the 20 hours a week she was required to dedicate to her sport.  Mind you, her tuition, room and board were paid for.  The $450 was for incidentals and the rest was paid for.

This was in the mid-late 90s.  A normal college student working 20 hours a week (usually more), just looks at athletes complaining like this and shake their heads. She came from an upper-middle-class family, and her folks could easily have supplemented necessary unplanned expenses, but that is not the point.

The point is that these players are being exploited.  Their skills are giving them an education, but they are bringing more money to the institutions than their compensation warrants.  Or are they?  This is the argument that will come to the fold sooner than later, in the guise of a century old institution may be forced to alter its entire existence.

Northwestern has won their most recent stair in a climb that will include several more.  Before this is done, we will see Mark Emmert in front of Congress and the US Supreme Court.  The Northwestern contingent are mainly concerned with protection as employees, where injuries and dismissal at the discretion of the coaches and institution will not be a concern.  If a player is massively hurt on the field, as the rules apply today, they are responsible for their medical expenses in the future.  Protection. These players know that if they suffer a career ending injury they will lose their shot at continuing an education.

Does this mean that an over-hyped tennis player is guaranteed a four year scholarship after they tweak their elbow, or that a top tier QB is in breach of contract if they leave the school after 3 years?  Probably. It may require individualized contracts for each new player.

The other concern is that as employees, will players be required to pay taxes?  There are tax breaks for tuition, but will players from Northwestern be required to pay taxes on the just north of $63,000 per year for their salaries (assuming they are employees)?   This could KILL Stanford, Duke, Vanderbilt, Northwestern and every other private institution’s athletic programs.   Anyway we look at it, a serious tax accounting program that may require tax attorneys be added to every athletic department in the country.

This could significantly hurt NCAA athletes in the short run (unions usually hurt in the short run), but create an athletic atmosphere that will be to the athlete’s benefit in the long run.  Problems will be ironed out, but amateurism is likely going away.  The Olympics dismissed their requirements decades ago, understanding that amateur athletes can not survive on nothing.  The NCAA has required a vow of poverty from their athletes for more than a century.

There is a happy middle.  The NCAA will likely make concessions to avoid a union (look at companies like Costco, who learned that in order to avoid unions, they would just offer pay and benefits beyond union demands).

Something will happen within the next few years.  The Ed O’Bannon case that has already killed NCAA video games.   Frankly, if EA had just created weighted, randomized rosters, they could have continued the games, but apparently we as fans and game players could not deal with starting our dynasty modes with a Coug QB #9 (6-1, 198) rated 89 overall.  Have any idea who that is?  Neither do I.    There is a deeper problem with EA, but if you forgot about the episode watch Crack Baby Athletic Association.  

This mess will change college sports.  Players want to be compensated according to the general rules of capitalism, and while slavery is too strong a word for NCAA regulations, endenture is not.  Neither is quite correct, but signing day definately sees players signing some rights away with debatable compensation.  While a graduate student, my knowledge and skills allowed for significantly reduced tuition rate (along with a reasonable, but not grandiose, living expense stipend.)

I always felt that we were given plenty (mind you, we spent much more than 20 hours a week to receive this assistance).  After I left Pullman the subject of unionization of WSU Grad students reared, and without a vote from anyone I talked to in a liberal department, passed.  I’m not sure if the 35% vote was required from the WSUGSA, but that was the union pushing themselves upon the graduate students, not a cry of exploitation from the graduate student body.

These players feel that they are not protected, it is not about pay, it is about putting themselves on the line for an education, which they are not guaranteed.   A union should not be necessary, but unions emerge when capitalism eschews fair compensation.  This problem lies solely at the feet of the NCAA.

The cries of inequity are valid from the Northwestern contingent, but if in four years this reaches the highest court (who knows what that court will look like in 2018), we will see college sport change from what we see today.  Here is a map of right to work states (will not support a union), so you could conceivably see either the death or rise of programs in those states.

Will the courts change college sports?  Are you pissed?  Well, we’ll see.  Alabama and Texas may be able to pay their players, but will a 5 star tackle take a year to year scholarship or take his guarantee at WSU instead of a gamble at Florida? If these state by state laws are followed by the NCAA, well, we could be quite pleased on the West Coast.

All is to change, and our leader CML has weighed in, and I will address that tomorrow morning.  Strangely enough, if CML’s ideas are implemented, NCAA football will be changed irreconcilably, and while laughable, (this is a hint at the Leach comments), we only brought one real in state recruit in last month.

Sigh hard, college sports fans, because this is not done.  Johnny’s not working the docks, but the gridiron may be a union fight that garners a Springsteen song later this decade.