Why Northwestern Football Players Want To Form A Union


ESPN broke the news Tuesday morning that an unspecified number of Northwestern football players, led by quarterback Kain Colter and with assists from a college athletes’ advocacy group and the United Steelworkers, were planning to file a petition to form a union. I looked at some of the legal issues and hurdles they may face in trying to do so, but I only touched on the central reason for why they wanted to form a union — they want a greater voice in the system that is college athletics — without exploring the specific issues they hope to address.

Right away, a large portion of the internet assumed that compensation was the major issue. That’s not unreasonable, given that pay-for-play/compensation has been a major topic in college athletics news over the last few years, and that the NCAA’s hastily-drawn response to the news focused on that issue alone. But as SB Nation’s Jason Kirk pointed out Tuesday afternoon, it’s wrong.

This isn’t about pay-for-play. Instead, it’s about the broader issue of players not having a say in the system in which they operate the specific issues on which these players feel the NCAA and its member schools has failed them.

Take a look at the list of claims the National Collegiate Players Association has long championed. The new union would be an offshoot of that group, and the causes Colter and Ramogi Huma, the former NCPA director who will now lead the College Athletes Players Association, outlined appear similar if not identical. There are two compensation issues: they want full cost-of-attendance scholarships and the right to their names, images, and likenesses, the central claim in the major O’Bannon lawsuit against the NCAA. The rest focus on health, education, and other basic rights. They want basic safety standards, particularly as they apply to concussions. They want the NCAA and its members to protect the scholarships of injured athletes who can’t continue their athletic careers. They want the NCAA to keep athletes from having the shoulder the costs of injuries and sports-related health issues. They want more rights in the NCAA’s infractions and suspensions process, more rights to transfer between schools, and better graduation rates.

Those aren’t exactly radical claims, especially because the NCAA’s failures on many of them are fairly evident. There are now several lawsuits against the NCAA that involve its handling of concussions. One is a wrongful death suit, and in it, the NCAA denied that it had a legal obligation to protect players from head injuries. The biggest of the lawsuits includes specific details about the NCAA’s unwillingness to deal with its concussion problem — and its unwillingness once it actually instituted some mild standards to enforce them on its members. Look at this timeline of how the NCAA responded to concussion research, claims from players, and efforts to improve standards, and it’s clear the NCAA failed to do everything it could even if it didn’t fail to do all it was legally obligated to do (side note: the CAPA, for now, will only represent men’s basketball and football players at Football Bowl Subdivision schools, so it wouldn’t represent all of the athletes involved in these suits. But given that most of the concussions suffered happened in football and that standards implemented for those athletes would likely apply in other sports and divisions too, it’s relevant).

The other claims are similar. One study has shown that the NCAA athletic scholarship leaves athletes with a $3,200 annual shortfall when it comes to paying for the full cost of attendance and cost of living while they are in school. The NCAA has tried, unsuccessfully, to address this at the top level, but it hasn’t yet. On the other health issues — the maintenance of scholarships after injury and full health care coverage — the NCAA and its members have either done nothing (except when forced by recently-passed state laws) or have actively crafted ways to keep from having to do so, as it did when it created the term “student-athlete” in the 1950s to avoid liability for worker’s compensation claims. When it comes to transfer rights, NCAA schools can prohibit players from going to certain competitors, and players have to sit out a year to switch schools. In the current enforcement structure, the NCAA can force a player to sit out of competition before actually prove any rules violation. The NCAA has done little or nothing on either of these fronts to address the fundamental claims the players make.

It’s easy to focus solely on money and pay-for-play, but it’s worth remembering here that compensation isn’t the sole purpose of a labor union. The American labor movement started to fight for workers on many fronts, from basic workplace safety standards to standard working hours to health and retirement plans to, yes, compensation. That’s true both in sports and outside of it. The Major League Baseball Players Association, the first union in American sports, organized to fight for players’ right to bargain for higher salaries, but it also wanted health and pension benefits and due process in punishments and suspensions. Health and pension contributions and non-financial factors have been major (if under-covered) issues in most of the labor disputes and work stoppages in sports over the last four decades. The story is similar outside sports. The labor dispute at the Majestic factory in Pennsylvania that makes MLB’s uniforms was about the preservation of health benefits, not about salaries and outright compensation. The same can be said for labor disputes at other businesses too.

It isn’t shocking when people conflate the idea of players forming a union with players just wanting to get paid. The top-line issue in sports labor disputes at the professional level is almost always money, and that’s how the leagues and owners like to keep it. It’s much easier for owners whose sport-related incomes are hidden behind complex financial documents and accounting tricks to cry poverty and argue that players (whose salaries are more transparent) are being greedy by asking for more (or, in the case of recent disputes, the same amount) of money. The NCAA is no different in that regard. Colter and the new organization said specifically that compensation was a major issue for them right now, but money and pay-for-play was the focus of the NCAA’s response for a simple reason: like pro owners, it’s easier for them to play off the idea that the players are being greedy for not simply accepting the deal they get now than it is to argue on the merits of other claims the athletes are making.

If players are allowed to organize, pay-for-play and other compensation claims may one day end up on their agenda. For right now, though, pay-for-play isn’t part of the debate. If media figures and fans want to argue the merits of the players’ efforts to form a union, that argument should focus primarily on the problems they’re currently trying to fix and the central question of whether they deserve a right in the system in charge of fixing them.