Northwestern Football Unionizing

In a game against Maine last September, Northwestern QB Kain Colter wore a black wristband identifying the hashtag APU, which signified his support for unionizing collegiate football players to take a group stand against the tyranny of the collegiate athletic system. On that day Colter and nine other players across the country stood to support what they and many others see as a class of athletes who are deprived of basic rights. Yesterday Kain Colter, with the support of Ramogi Huma, took a big step forward by filing a petition with the National Labor Relations Board to be recognized as employees of their university and thereby start the ball rolling toward possible unionization by which labor relations benefits might be realized. Let’s deal with reality here. This is not about an ivory tower education. this is about the business of sports. In the case of football, Colleges are as money-driven as the NFL and college football has the same risks of injury, particularly catastrophic injury and brain trauma.

Certainly football players aren’t the only students who bring money to their universities. But football is the big time. The five major conferences in the United States control a business that hauls in well over $5 Billion annually.

The unionization movement as represented by Colter and Huma is backed by the United Steelworkers. In 2001 Huma started an advocacy group, the College Athlete Players Association, which has been recognized and supported by the NFLPA.

The student athletes claim they are at the mercy of their universities who completely control all aspects of their athletic lives. Unionization brings recognition to their demands for basic rights that seek to protect them in case of injury. Currently, a university can discontinue a player’s scholarship if the player doesn’t play due to a variety of factors, including injury. Injuries are common to football (and other college sports). Even President Obama has admitted that he wouldn’t allow his son play football due to the high risk of injury. Should injury deprive a student of a scholarship?

Colter wants scholarships guaranteed so student-athletes can continue attending school even if they cannot play football because of an injury. Despite the apparent common sense of this demand, going up against the ways and means of the NCAA is going up against a monopoly…and a very rich one that isn’t going to let common sense stand in the way of self-interest.

The universities are bound to be bound together to raise the flag that providing the mere prospect of a four-year education is compensation enough for athletes. The universities will tug at our winning ways by asserting that a full commitment to four years is unfair if players can’t play for the duration – injury be damned. After all, scholarships are limited by the NCAA and if an injured player is using one then how does a coach field the best possible team? After all, success on the field translates to bottom-line financial success.

The timing seems opportune for the players, with the approaching playoff format and new television contract that’ll run until 2020. The new playoff system will put the top four teams in a “Final Four” in the FBS. It’s going to draw massive ratings and huge attention. Colter and his fellow players can leverage their momentum to get Northwestern (as proxy for the NCAA) to give into their demands. If the NCAA fights and loses the scholarship-injury battle, then the slippery slope could lead to paying student athletes. There’s a lot at risk for the NCAA. Colter could represent only the first of many dominoes.