Last week, football players at Northwestern University announced that they would attempt to form the first union in college sports history to challenge the NCAA on rules regarding health, scholarships, and eventually, compensation. They can now count a former Heisman Trophy winner as a fan.
“I think it’s cool, and I think it would be a huge step in college sports if that were able to happen,” Detroit Lions running back Reggie Bush, who played three seasons at the University of Southern California, told ThinkProgress ahead of the Super Bowl. “The players need to be heard—they’re the ones on the field doing the work. They should have an opinion.”
Bush has a history battling the NCAA. He forfeited his 2005 Heisman after the NCAA investigated USC for giving improper benefits to the running back who gained more than 4,000 yards from scrimmage as a Trojan and helped USC win the 2004 BCS National Championship. Bush allegedly received more than $100,000 in cash and gifts from agents and boosters while at USC, and as a result, the NCAA stripped the school of 30 scholarships and its national title.
While much of the criticism of the Northwestern players’ efforts has focused on pay-for-play, one of the often overlooked areas the players want to fix is in the NCAA’s rules enforcement practices, and Bush and USC provide a perfect example of the changes they’d like to make. Because Bush was gone to the NFL before the NCAA unearthed potential rules violations, the school’s punishment — a post-season ban and scholarship reductions — fell on other players who had done nothing wrong. The National Collegiate Players Association, a precursor to the union that will be known as the College Athletes Players Association, has long wanted to reform the punishment process in a way that wouldn’t affect players who had nothing to do with rules violations.
Aside from enforcement, the Northwestern players have a long list of proposals that don’t deal with pay-for-play. As Travis Waldron and Jason Kirk have explained, a union could lead to more workplace health and safety protections for athletes during and after their careers. College football players face the risk of long-term damage from injuries—concussions in particular—but are shortchanged when it comes to collective bargaining for coverage from the NCAA. Scholarships also do not cover the full cost of living at most universities. In addition, transfer rules require that players without hardship waivers must sit out a season, and coaches can deny athletes releases that allow them to seek scholarships at other schools.
Regardless of the specific goals sought, a union would offer college football players at least a seat at the table deciding the regulations that govern them. Bush, who gained 4,470 yards from scrimmage in just three years at USC, said he saw the benefits of a players’ union during the 2011 NFL lockout.
“Obviously now in the NFL we have a players’ union, so we can police ourselves, and we had the collective bargaining agreement,” Bush said. “When the NFL was going through that whole deal with the players, we got a chance to represent ourselves and voice what we wanted and what we wanted to see.”