• Otter Views: Northwestern’s Union

    A unionization bid kicked off in January by Northwestern University football players got an understandably mixed reception this week at the NCAA men’s basketball tournament.

    As principal proponent and curator of the “scholar-athlete” shibboleth, the National Collegiate Athletic Association was horrified it might have to bargain some day with the very athletes it purports to represent. For the wealthy NCAA and its member colleges, player unionization would be a slippery and potentially ruinous slope.

    Leaning on crutches while his team lost in the Round of 16, Iowa State University basketball star Georges Niang had a different outlook. He wanted workman’s compensation for his broken right foot.

    “You are sacrificing to make their school win a championship,” Niang told The New York Times. “But they’re not going to take care of you. That could change.”

    Indeed, if it survives on appeal, a National Labor Relations Board ruling that students on athletic scholarships may qualify as university “employees” could tilt the playing field considerably.

    NLRB regional director Peter Ohr ruled March 26 that a group of Northwestern football players led by former quarterback Kain Colter were university employees. They could thus form a union and bargain collectively for medical care, working conditions, pay and benefits.

    Ohr based his decision on several factors. First, as athletic scholarship recipients, the players were specifically recruited and paid to play football for Northwestern. He also found that football-related activity consumed far more of their time than did academic studies.

    Noting that the players put in 50 to 60 hours a week of football preparation versus at most 20 hours of classroom time, Ohr dismissed the university’s contention they were “primarily students.”

    Finally, Ohr pointed out that the players face constraints not shared by other students: mandatory drug testing, year-round adherence to training schedules, and required attendance at team activities. The players were even required to honor “friending” requests from their coaches on Facebook.

    I should mention here the NLRB ruling is narrow and could prove inconsequential in the larger arena. At this point it only covers the players who brought the complaint, and it only affects Northwestern, a private university. If “scholar athletes” at public campuses wanted to unionize, they would need to pursue a different process. That said, the Colter ruling sent shockwaves through a collegiate sports industry some critics have likened to a “plantation” system. In basketball and football especially, players receiving five-figure annual scholarships can generate enormous monetary returns for their schools, conferences, and the NCAA.

    One study found that 2012 Heisman Trophy winner Jon “Johnny Football” Manziel earned athletic scholarships worth about $130,000 during his time at Texas A&M University. The school, meanwhile, parlayed its football success during the Manziel years into $300 million in additional income. No matter how you parse it, that’s good business.
    And that’s just one player at one school. If anything, the aggregate figures are even more eye-popping. The New York Times reported that the NCAA and its five “power conferences” reap nearly a billion dollars a year from the March Madness men’s basketball tournament alone. The new college football playoff system will pay the NCAA and its member conferences $7.3 billion over the next decade.

    All this wealth is earned on the backs – or in Georges Niang’s case, the broken feet – of “scholar-athletes” who face major risks but enjoy few rights. Their schools underwrite medical care while they’re in uniform, but many scholarship athletes suffer fractures, concussions and joint damage that will haunt them for a lifetime. Unionization might at least help them bargain for injury-related medical insurance.

    It’s timely the unionization issue bubbled up during the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, because the Final Four pretty much slam dunks the NCAA’s “scholar athlete” defense. This year, national semifinalist Kentucky starts nine freshmen in a “one and done” program designed to send players to the pros after a single year in the classroom. Another Final Four school, the University of Connecticut, graduates only eight percent of its men’s basketball players.

    In its defense, the NCAA points out that college players who go on to compete at professional levels represent only a tiny fraction of all scholarship athletes.

    “While improvements need to be made, we do not need to completely throw away a system that has helped literally millions of students over the past decade alone attend college,” NCAA lawyer Donald Remy wrote in response to the Northwestern ruling. “We want student-athletes, 99 percent of whom will never make it to the professional leagues, focused on what matters most: finding success in the classroom, on the field, and in life.”

    On that, at least, the NCAA and the Northwestern gridders could agree. One of the principal demands voiced in Colter’s complaint to the NLRB was for reduced practice time so players could devote more time and energy to their studies.

    Ironically, it was in his senior labor relations class that Colter first got the idea of forming a players’ union. Someday soon, the NCAA may wish he had stayed in the weight room.

    posted to Cedar Street Times on April 4, 2014

    Topics: Otter Views

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