Yesterday the regional director of the National Labor Relations Board, a man named Peter Sung Ohr, ruled that players at Northwestern University were employees of the university and had a right to organize and form a union.
A group of players led by former Wildcat quarterback Kain Colter had filed to unionize with the help and support of the United Steelworkers Union. The ruling is subject to appeal, and the NLRB only governs private universities. Public schools comprise all but 17 members of the FBS.
Along with the Ed O’Bannon case, which is scheduled to go to trial on June 9th, this decision shakes the foundations of college football and college sports and threatens the fabric of the game.
The players certainly have a point. They risk permanent injury to play college football, and as Ohr noted in his decision, have a 60-hour-a-week commitment to the football program in which the coach controls their activity. The current system offers them no compensation outside tuition, room and board and books, and no medical coverage for any injuries once their college careers are over.
This off season, two players, Will McKamey of Navy and Ted Agu of California, have died during football workouts.
Only 2% go on to the NFL, and most NFL careers are brief. While the scholarship they’re getting is worth $50 to 60,000 a year, their coaches are making anywhere from two to six million. Ohio State Athletic director Gene Smith makes over $950,000. In his decision Ohr wrote:
“Clearly, the Employer’s players perform valuable services for their Employer. Monetarily, the Employer’s football program generated revenues of approximately $235 million during the nine year period 2003-2012 through its participation in the NCAA Division I and Big Ten Conference that were generated through ticket sales, television contracts, merchandise sales and licensing agreements. The Employer was able to utilize this economic benefit provided by the services of its football team in any manner it chose.”
Few of us would be happy in a situation where our boss made 100x what we made. Additionally, the value of the education players get in exchange varies widely. Stanford graduates 100% of its players every year, but at most schools it hovers around 50%. At some schools, academic fraud and scandal have been rampant. Many athletes aren’t prepared to do college work and don’t get adequate support. Oregon does an exceptional job in this area, providing some of the best academic resources to their athletes in the country.
For fans, the sad part is that this decision will inevitably lead to an upheaval in the game. The players are gaining leverage, and the NCAA, which has a $60 million surplus, is clearly losing it. Imagine if the players threatened a strike one day before the opening weekend or the first round of the playoffs. College football would be visited by the same ugliness that plagues other big-time sports.
It could be that a visionary will take hold of the developing controversy and create a compromise that preserves and protects what we love about the game. With medical protections and a new commitment to injury research like head trauma, a stipend for players, and providing for their parents to travel to games, maybe a lasting working agreement could be reached that avoids issues like strikes, taxation and Title IX. College football needs leadership, one clear voice to lead them out of this wilderness.
The game has always been special because of the color, history and tradition of being played on college campuses. The players have never been amateurs. Cheating, corruption and under-the-table deals have been a part of it for over a hundred years. But fans have always been able to make a silent bargain with the underside of the game and enjoy the mascots and personalities and amazing moments.
Without the connection to schools and campuses, college football just becomes a grim version of the NBA Developmental League, with none of the passion and interest it currently has.
Some myths we simply don’t want busted.