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NCAA | Opinion

Why Northwestern’s right to unionize matters

Published: April 8, 2014, 4:10 pm ET
Sports Editor

The NCAA’s self-serving stranglehold on college sports and its so-called “student-athletes” have been seriously threatened. It’s about time!

March 26, Peter Sung Ohr, the National Labor Relations Board’s regional director, ruled that scholarship football players at Northwestern University are university employees and therefore have the right to unionize.

Despite desperate pleas from head coach Pat Fitzgerald and NCAA President Mark Emmert, who each made more than $1.5 million last year, Northwestern players will determine the outcome when they vote on the union April 25.

The unionization of collegiate athletes “would blowup everything about the collegiate model of athletics,” Emmert said at a Final 4 press conference.

Hey, Mark, that’s the whole point! Student-athlete advocates have been trying to “blow up” the model. Unfortunately, the NCAA’s ironclad control over college athletics has made it nearly impossible.

Since its inception, the NCAA has routinely taken advantage of student-athletes to expand its brand and create revenue for old men in suits, without adequately and rightfully rewarding its players. In fact, the NCAA works overtime – no pun intended, since student-athletes routinely spend more than 40 hours per week focused on the “athlete” side of the student-athlete equation – to prevent student-athletes from gaining benefits from their on-the-field performances.

Take Jonny Manziel as an example.

A study conducted by Texas A&M found the football team generated $37 million in Manziel’s Heisman winning season. Additionally, donations to TAMU increased from $300 million to a school record $740 million in the year when Jonny Football brought the national spotlight to College Station, according to The New York Times.

How was Manziel rewarded? The NCAA suspended him for allegedly receiving money for signing autographs in January 2013. The NCAA, admittedly, did not have evidence that Manziel received money. But, Manziel did break NCAA bylaw 12.5.2.1, which states student-athletes cannot permit “the use of his or her name or picture to advertise, recommend or promote directly the sale or use of a commercial product or service of any kind.”

Isn’t it ironic that, as Jay Bilas reported, at the time one could search “Manziel” in the NCAA shop and be directed to No. 2 Texas A&M apparel? How is it fair that the NCAA can market student-athletes, but student-athletes cannot promote themselves?

To simplify the NCAA’s likely answer, athletes receive a free education, which is a satisfactory bonus for their athletic commitments. Certainly, a free education is a luxury, but schools routinely show a lack of interest in their players’ academics.

Take, for example, Florida International University, Troy University, and even the prestigious University of California, Berkeley programs, where their football teams’ graduation rates are below 50 percent.

NCAA supporters would contend the students are at fault. They would argue the NCAA and the schools they attend are gracious enough to provide student-athletes with free educations, and if they don’t graduate, they are to blame.

This argument has merit – players need to do their part. But, this argument also takes a simplistic approach to a system-generated problem. Prior to his ruling, Ohr found Northwestern players commit 40-50 hours a week to football. Football is a legitimate full-time job, minus the pay, of course. College students, as is, have a lot on their plates, and if you took 50 hours out of their week, surely they would struggle. It’s a matter of math. After all, there are only 168 hours in a week.

Moreover, student-athletes are consistently held to lower standards so that they do well enough to remain eligible, which, in effect, harms the students. Recently, a University of North Carolina student-athlete tutor leaked a student’s final essay to the media. This essay, which could have been written by a third grader, helped him or her receive an A- in the course at one of the nation’s most prestigious public universities. Whether players such as this graduate or not, they do not learn the skills a college student should graduate with.

While Northwestern and Manziel have dominated headlines, they represent the elite student-athletes in two different senses. Manziel will finally get his payday at the coming NFL Draft, and Northwestern, one of the nation’s best universities, had the highest graduate rate among FBS football programs in 2013.

The people most abused by the NCAA’s dictatorship, however, are those whom you don’t know. They are the backup linemen who don’t graduate. They are the running backs who don’t see time on Saturdays, but suffer enough concussions in practice to severely damage their brains. They are the NCAA’s marketing pawns that further its brand, but are disregarded when they find themselves on the streets after school, because no one taught them how to take care of themselves.

The NCAA’s brutalities acted upon student-athletes are not new. In fact, the term “student-athlete” was created, sports economist Andrew Zimbalist wrote, to assist the NCAA’s “fight against workmen’s compensation insurance claims for injured football players.” In Taylor Branch’s “The Shame of College Sports,” he explains how the term was used to prevent the widow of Ray Dennison, who died from head injuries suffered while playing college football in Colorado, from receiving workmen’s-compensation death benefits. Northwestern players are trying to redefine this 60-year-old term, which has been used since the Dennison case to limit the rights of collegiate athletes.

Assuming Northwestern’s players vote to unionize, which is not a foregone certainty, the NCAA will lead a lengthy appeal process. On CBS’ “Face the Nation,” Emmert said this case would go to the Supreme Court. Best case, Northwestern’s potential union will take years to solidify.

Additionally, the ruling adds more questions than answers. What happens to football players not on scholarships? How about the players in other sports who put in just as many hours as scholarship football players, but don’t produce revenue? Most importantly, what rights will the athletes gain, and will these rights be enough?

Northwestern’s victory – which is a victory for student-athletes everywhere – is a massive step in redefining the rights of student-athletes. But, it is just the first step of the marathon to resolve the atrocities the NCAA commits everyday toward student-athletes.

The gun has sounded. Let the race begin.

Contact staff writer Jack Nicholson at jack.nicholson@richmond.edu
Follow him on twitter at @Jack_Nicholson

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  • Marc Linhardt

    Well written and concise.

    As a Northwestern alumnus I follow the issue closely. I don’t want a union, however the NCAA is a horrible organization. Most schools are poor stewards in regards to talented athletes.

    I don’t believe the players should get a “piece” of the action, however they should be medically and educationally protected. Johnny Manziel is a rarity, but he must understand his success funds Texas A&M’s 19 other varsity sports

    At Northwestern without football no other sport than men’s basketball would be sustainable and likely some academic departments would suffer as successful sports teams often support general donations to the school.