Why shouldn’t Northwestern players be allowed to unionize?

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It’s finally happened—just what the NCAA has feared for years: a group of athletes went forward with the idea of forming a union. It took the Northwestern Wildcats to make it happen. The National Labor Relations Board in Chicago decided the day before yesterday that Northwestern scholarship football players should be allowed to organize and vote on forming a union.

To some, this is crazy stuff. Football players forming a union? No way! These are student-athletes. They’ve got no business forming a union. But wait a minute. What’s the difference between a group of players forming a union and group of truck drivers doing the same thing?

Let’s look at the numbers. The value of a full ride at Northwestern is about $61,000. To earn that scholarship, players give a lot. During August preseason, they spend 50 to 60 hours a week training. During football season, players devote 40 to 50 hours per week on football-related activities. In January, players spend 12 to 15 hours per week training. The number goes up to 15 to 20 hours per week in February and then up again to 20 to 25 hours by mid-April.

Players are subject to rules that do not apply to other students. For example, players must receive permission from the athletic department before obtaining employment. Players must disclose to their coaches information about the cars they drive and abide by rules pertaining to social media.

What do the players produce for Northwestern? In the 2012-2013 academic year, the football team generated gross revenue of $30.1 million, for which Northwestern had $22.2 million in expenses, resulting in a net gain of just over $8 million.

So, why aren’t footballs players employees, just like the guys driving trucks for the local steel company are employees? They’re both subject to set work hours and rules, they’re both compensated in exchange for what they produce, and they both produce a tangible benefit for someone else.

Perhaps the big difference is that the players are students. Yes, that must be the difference, except that academic requirements are low for players, and football takes precedence over academics. Players entering their second year must have a 1.8 GPA. Players entering their third year must have a 1.9 GPA, and those entering their fourth year must have a 2.0 GPA and have completed 60 percent of their degree applicable units.

According to quarterback Kain Colter, scholarship players are not permitted to miss practice during the regular season when they have class conflicts. Let’s also remember that those scholarships are tied to playing football, not academic performance or financial need.

Is it any wonder the NLRB hearing officer concluded that “it cannot be said the [Northwestern] scholarship players are ‘primarily students’.”  He also found that players spend “many more hours” on football than they spend on their studies.

Maybe it’s nostalgia that makes some think that unionizing is wrong. Back in the day (when we had only three television stations), there were maybe six bowl games and no such thing as luxury boxes in college stadiums. Money was nowhere near the element it is today in college sports. But those days are long gone. Money is everything now, and the burden of producing that money is on the backs of players. We have created something that resembles a feudal system, where a few at the top make a lot of money from the efforts of many at the bottom.

So, we either call on Mr. Peabody and his Wayback Machine to take us back to the golden age when money wasn’t such a driving force in college athletics, or we reconcile ourselves to the fact that we have perverted college athletics into something far removed from academics.

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  1. Tony Jones  March 31, 2014

    Jack – Great Job!!

    Please allow me to add my own opinion to this topic. The greatest fear for the past 20-30 years has finally come to surface. Every leader involved with major college sports, from university presidents, attorneys and the coaches, are often treated like they can do “No Wrong” and these sports dictators have the support of the NCAA organization that plays watch dog over all colleges and universities athletics and regulates/restricts the actual athlete. I am positive that attorneys for the universities saw this day coming a long time ago and this is why the title was changed to “student-athlete” in order to try to slow down or stop the profits from trickling down to the athletes. Well people, change is coming like in 1987 when President Ronald Regan said “Mr. Gorbachev, Tear Down This Wall” and on November 9, 1989 the wall fell down.

    Jack’s blog does a great job at breaking down the numbers and hours of player commitments even better than the comparison with drivers of trucks at the steel-mills. When the news of this student-athlete union first broke, the initial poll showed that nearly 75% of Americans” were against athletes being labeled as “employees”. I never cared about voting polls, but the most recent polls now show that only 47% of Americans are against such a decision.

    People wake up! The NCAA Tournament this month is bringing in $1.12 billion dollars. None of this tremendous sum is going to the players! College football and basketball coaches are the highest paid public employees in 30 states in this country. Want more proof of the disparity of income? Now let’s throw in the school’s presidents and AD’s (athletic directors) who all receive large payout bounuses in the hundred of thousands of dollars, and not one of these millionaires have anything direct influence on the performance or success of these athletes. But everyone is getting paid from all their “blood and sweat.”

    The Ohio State Univeristy athletic director Gene Smith recently got paid $18,447.94 because an OSU wrestler won the NCAA weight class championship. Although it’s all outlined in his contract and legal, exactly what did he do to earn a bonus from this young man’s hard work? Not trying to pick on Gene Smith, but he’s just an example of how all these people are making a lot of money from the hard work and dedication of these athletes.

    I am not a parent but I remember my parent’s advice about my beliefs: “stand up for what you believe and if you feel strongly about it then you should speak out.” I support Northwestern University players for challeging this corrupted and unequal system. This labor relations matter will likely go all the way to the Supreme Court and I believe it will stand because they are treated like employees. – Tony Jones


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