Opinion: How player unions could change the face of college athletics
College athletics is all about the money. Always has been, always will be. The NCAA made $872 million in total revenues in 2012 thanks to their student-athletes, who sacrifice their time and bodies to play sports in exchange for a free education. Hey, you can’t downplay that benefit. We live in an age where college costs are skyrocketing and many are being priced out of going to college unless they take on massive debt. So a full-ride scholarship — heck, even a partial scholarship — that can lead to a college degree and a long career is very valuable.
But no one likes being taken advantage of, and that’s exactly what is happening with college athletes.
I played football at Northwestern in the mid-90s. I walked-on to the team as a freshman safety and earned a full-ride athletic scholarship my sophomore year. I know full well the time commitments demanded of college football players. Former Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter, who led the charge to allow players to unionize, said he spent around 50 hours a week on football, more time than he did on his studies. He couldn’t take certain classes because they interfered with football practice and he even changed his major from pre-med because he didn’t have the time to do the necessary studying. What Kolter said is true. When I played, I would get to the stadium around two o’clock and leave around 6:30 p.m. The night before games, we would sequestered from 2 p.m. Friday until after the game the next day. You’re so focused on the game ahead you can’t study. I also couldn’t take certain classes because it interfered with football.
Football came first, and unless you wanted to lose your scholarship, you did what the coaches told you. The winter of my sophomore year, right after coach Gary Barnett gave me my scholarship, I hurt my hip flexor lifting weights. I struggled to overcome the injury and played horribly during spring football practice. Afterwards, Coach Barnett made a veiled threat to take away my scholarship unless I bounced back, which I did. But that threat scared the living daylights out of me and made me realize no athletic scholarship is guaranteed.
That is another issue Colter wants remedied: guaranteed four-year scholarships. The regional director for the National Labor Relations Board, Peter Sung Ohr, sided with the football players Wednesday, saying these athletes are recruited to go to Northwestern. In exchange for a scholarship worth around $75,000 a year, football players are expected to do certain things: go to study hall, go to practice and workouts, and get permission on where they can live off campus. That makes them university employees. Northwestern countered by promising to appeal the ruling to the National Labor Relations Board. It could then go through the court system and take years to resolve. Northwestern president emeritus Henry Bienen said if the courts side with the athletes, NU could do away with Division I football rather than bargain with athletes, going toward the Ivy League model where players do not get full ride football scholarships. I wonder how that would affect fundraising efforts to build a new $220-million football practice/athletic facility off Lake Michigan?
There is no doubt that the unionization of football players would be costly to the NCAA and the universities. Players could threaten to go on strike unless their demands are met, costing games and tarnishing the university’s image. It could open the door to players demanding “pay for play”, which some smaller universities simply cannot afford. Right now this ruling just affects private universities, but it could lead to athletes from KU, Mizzou and K-State appealing to their state labor relations board to allow them to unionize.
Former Missouri wide receiver T.J. Moe brought up some valid points on Twitter about this issue. He warned that if football players are employees, the university could fire them if they are late to practice. If the athletes threatened to go on strike, the university could lock them out of campus buildings, preventing them from going to class. And if the scholarship is considered income, the government could tax it. He added that he wasn’t sure unionizing was the best option but agreed student-athletes need a system to help them push through issues affecting them.
The repercussions of this ruling right now are unknown, but if student-athletes have more control over their time and bodies, it will change the way college athletics are run. Will it be for the better? Definitely for the athlete, but whether it benefits the fan is yet to be determined. Would universities start getting rid of their football programs because of this ruling? I admit that is a doomsday scenario and highly unlikely, but it’s a possibility college football fans need to be concerned about. Ultimately this ruling will give football players a platform to finally have their concerns heard — and give them the power to do something about it.