As many of us in the Peach State have been chilling out this week, the biggest news in college athletics, aside from those last desperate recruiting visits, has been Northwestern football players teaming up with the United Steelworkers to try and get a union for college athletes off the ground — a move hailed on social media by several of Mark Richt’s Georgia Bulldogs.
Calling the NCAA “a dictatorship,” Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter laid out the case for the proposed College Athletes Players Association at a news conference in Chicago. He wants college athletes to be considered “employees” of their schools since they generate all that revenue. “How can they call this amateur athletics when our jerseys are sold in stores and the money we generate turns coaches and commissioners into multimillionaires?” Colter asked.
Not surprisingly, players on the UGA offensive line — some of whom already sported “APU” (for All Players United) wristbands during a game last season — expressed support for the idea. Kolton Houston, whose lengthy battle with the NCAA for eligibility was the stuff of an ESPN documentary, gave props to the Northwestern players and said he hopes it works. John Theus and Brandon Kublanow also were on board.
But it wasn’t just those “blue-collar” position players hopping on the union bandwagon in Athens. Running back Keith Marshall tweeted: “I like what the Northwestern players are doing!” And UGA basketball player Marcus Thornton said he thought it would be “great” for players to organize “to have a voice.”
As expected, the embattled NCAA, already sweating out the Ed O’Bannon lawsuit that seeks to force it to pay a portion of licensing fees to athletes, came out strongly against the Northwestern initiative, insisting that college athletes cannot be considered employees under federal labor law since their participation in college sports is voluntary.
The reaction elsewhere has been mixed, ranging from those fans who think the players have a valid point and deserve more protection and representation to others with an anti-union inclination who note that the athletes receive a free education and room and board in return for playing. Some have even gone so far as to call college athletes wanting to unionize “pampered” and “greedy.”
And then there are those who fear that the loss of “amateurism” as it’s current constituted in college athletics and the rise of collective bargaining, with visions of union reps filing grievances over failed drug tests and suspensions for misbehavior and so on. Some fear a players union will not only doom the embattled NCAA but perhaps forever change college sports, particularly the chief cash cow, football.
I think the most virulent knee-jerk blowback from some fans is based on an innate opposition to the idea of paying players — whether in the form of enhanced scholarships as has been proposed within the NCAA, or via straight stipends as some coaches like Steve Spurrier would prefer. And there’s no doubt that, if college players were to unionize, pay-for-play would eventually wind up on the table.
But for now athletes being paid to play is not one of the issues Colter and his group are raising. Their immediate worries are college athletes’ brain trauma risks, more scholarship money, preventing players from being stuck paying sports-related medical expenses, increasing the graduation rate of athletes, preventing schools from using a permanent injury suffered while playing as an excuse to reduce or eliminate a scholarship, establishing and enforcing uniform safety guidelines in all sports, making it easier for athletes to transfer to another school/program one time without punishment or limitations (like their coaches already can), and — perhaps most notably — eliminating restrictions on players’ outside employment and ability to directly benefit from commercial opportunities.
In other words, let college athletes have the sort of freedom to make money off their notoriety that Olympic athletes already have. While officially “amateur,” meaning they don’t compete for prize money or get paid for competing, Olympians can merchandise themselves, get lucrative licensing fees and so on. If the same applied to college football, say, Todd Gurley could share in all the money that UGA generates selling those No. 3 jerseys and Johnny Football could have been openly paid for all those autographs.
Mostly, though, the players pushing the union movement want a voice for student athletes in NCAA decisions (as UGA receiver Chris Conley, an NCAA student-athlete committee representative, told the NCAA convention this month, asking why a restructured governance model shown at the gathering didn’t include a spot for the student-athlete). In other words, the players want more attention paid to their welfare.
All of which I think is pretty reasonable.
While it’s true that not all college athletics programs are banking big bucks like UGA (most lose money), there’s no denying that they make an awful lot of money off student athletes. Yeah, the athletes get free schooling and all, but they aren’t feasibly able to have jobs, like other students do, to help with expenses. And they face greater demands, too, not the least of which is all that offseason “voluntary” conditioning and working out.
I’m just not sure that a plan with players considered employees and an actual dues-paying union that could call for strikes is the way to go — and in 24 states like Georgia, where there are right-to-work laws that restrict who can unionize, it’s probably pretty impossible legally. (Considering the status of unions in this state, it is interesting/ironic that UGA players seem to be ahead of the curve in supporting this idea.)
Still, I do believe that this movement could be a good thing if it gets the NCAA and schools to pay more attention to player issues. And, unfortunately, the reality is they probably wouldn’t pay that much serious attention to those issues unless they perceived a threat (like a union) that could derail their gravy train. If the end result is that programs spend more money on player welfare and less on ridiculous recruiting lures like locker rooms with fountains or increasingly absurd coaching salaries, well, that sounds like an overall improvement to me.
I do think that change is coming to college athletics, one way or another, and my own view is that the Olympic model perhaps points the way here, in lieu of an actual unionization of college athletics.
How about you?
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— Bill King, Junkyard Blawg