Northwestern should embrace Wildcats union effort

A players' union could redefine the relationship between athletes and universities — and teach some lessons, to boot

February 12, 2014 1:00PM ET
Kain Colter of the Northwestern Wildcats runs between blockers during a 2012 game against the Indiana Hoosiers. Colter launched an effort by Northwestern football players to unionize.
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Two decades later, I still remember the frustration and shame of having to sit out a Big Ten college swimming meet because I earned $75 for writing a freelance article. Ironically, the piece that provoked the sanction was a glowing story about my Northwestern Wildcat swimming teammate.

As a journalism student and full-scholarship swimmer in the 1990s, I was oblivious to labor issues, regarding athletes or otherwise. But my own little brush with National Collegiate Athletic Association labor rules gives me insight into the current debate over the efforts of Northwestern football players to join a union. (As an alum who now teaches at Northwestern, I have a personal interest in what happens but am not a spokeswoman for the university.)

The players argue that since they are paid to play — in the form of scholarships and stipends — they are employees who should have the same collective-bargaining rights as employees of other private institutions. They want, among other things, the power to negotiate jointly and directly with the university over issues including medical benefits and protections. They have also petitioned the National Labor Relations Board to affiliate with the College Athletes Players Association (CAPA), a new union formed with the support and funding of the United Steelworkers. The hearing before the NLRB is Feb. 12.

If allowed to unionize, the football players would affiliate with an organization, the United Steelworkers, that advocates for safe working conditions, human rights and economic justice at a global level — from copper miners in Mexico to unionists targeted by death squads in Colombia to immigrant car-wash workers in Chicago. This is a union that was shaped by some of the labor movement’s most storied battles right here in the Chicago area: the massive steel strikes of 1937, which led to that year’s Memorial Day Massacre, and the bitter fight for retiree benefits after Wisconsin Steel and other mills closed in the 1980s.

If allowed to unionize, Northwestern players would also be on their way to having a bigger say in decisions that affect their health and their academic and athletic careers. And the effort would augment their education with significant real-world experience.  

Scholarships or salaries?

While there is no doubt that universities such as Northwestern provide many benefits and opportunities for their student athletes, the athletes often have very little say in the NCAA and individual school rules that govern their lives. Simply accepting a scholarship subjects them to a host of regulations and requirements both inside and outside the athletic arena. For instance, athletes who wish to transfer to another university must often sit out for one to two years before being able to compete for their new school.

The rule that got me into trouble as a student athlete was a ban on full-scholarship athletes at Division I schools doing paid work during the school year. It was a safeguard against schools sweetening the pot for top recruits through easy jobs provided by team boosters. But the rule had an unfair and debilitating impact on many athletes. It prevented student athletes from earning money for simple things (from gas and groceries to entertainment), a necessity for those from lower-income families. The rule also hampered professional growth, barring student athletes from jobs, internships or freelance work that would lay the groundwork for their post-college careers.

As a budding journalist and college athlete, I was eager to freelance, so I wrote a profile of a stellar Northwestern butterflier for Swimming World magazine. Around the same time, I wrote a column for The Daily Northwestern about a Wildcat basketball player who was speaking out against the no-work rule, which, ironically, proved I should have been aware that paid writing was off limits to me. (The NCAA now allows scholarship athletes to work, subject to certain restrictions.)

Today the Northwestern football players similarly state that they are being denied a say in medical, financial and academic questions that are central to their lives. They believe a union will help them have a voice, allowing them to negotiate over everything from academic resources to training requirements to concussion-prevention programs.

The NCAA and Northwestern, for their part, contend that the football players are students, not employees, and hence ineligible to unionize. Scholarships are not forms of compensation, both entities maintain.

In the consideration of a players’ union, the possibility of making history by redefining athletes’ relationship to the university glimmers.

That logic makes more sense for athletes such as swimmers or wrestlers whose efforts bring little or no revenue to universities.

Even most college football and basketball programs actually cost more to operate than they bring in. But figure in the impact that these more high-profile, lucrative sports have on donations, government subsidies and marketing (not to mention multimillion-dollar salaries for some coaches and managers), and it is clear that players are bringing in big bucks for their institutions. Northwestern’s own football coach, Pat Fitzgerald, reportedly earned $2.2 million in compensation in 2011.

A 2011 study by Drexel University’s Sports Management Program and the National College Players Association found that if football and basketball players at top-tier sports schools were allowed to access the professional market, their value would be $121,048 and $265,027 per year, respectively. Yet, the study found, the room-and-board stipends included in full scholarships left a majority of players living below the federal poverty line.

An honest experiment

In strictly legal terms, the NCAA’s argument against unionization may be stronger than the players’ position. Northwestern said in a statement that while it encourages dialogue, the school does not believe a players’ union is “appropriate.” College is a time for learning and personal growth, and schools such as Northwestern stress that these should be any student’s top priorities, even for the athletes who rake in dollars and make headlines for the university.

So the NCAA and Northwestern could choose to break with tradition and support the players’ desire to form a union — the route that the players have chosen to empower themselves and improve their college experience.

It is possible, of course, that unionizing could have a negative impact on student athletes. NCAA and university policies already do address some of the players’ concerns. For example, players hope a union could help improve athletes’ graduation rates. Schools currently have mandatory study halls, and the NCAA enforces a cap on mandatory practice time, among other measures focused on academic performance.

Even the no-work rule I protested was intended in part to ensure that athletes had enough time for schoolwork. If universities and student athletes are thrown into a more adversarial relationship that is defined by federal labor law, perhaps the protections and resources universities already offer could be undermined. Nonetheless, the point of a union is not so much an accounting of costs and benefits as it is to give employees more control over their working conditions.

There is also the question of athletes in non-revenue-generating sports. Currently, CAPA is looking only to represent basketball and football players — those playing the big-money sports that present the clearest argument that players are employees. But where does that leave all the other athletes, the swimmers, runners and gymnasts?

While Northwestern football players have stressed that they represent all student athletes, it is unclear how their efforts would affect other college sports. Treating football and basketball players as employees could put them in a separate category from other scholarship athletes. It is possible, for instance, that compensating football and basketball players more fairly for their efforts could lead to less spending on other sports.

It is also entirely possible that players would end up frustrated or disillusioned by unionizing, or that it would have long-term negative impacts on football and basketball players or other student athletes. Widespread unionization of college teams could gut the NCAA’s power to regulate college sports and hence potentially weaken nationwide standards for athletic programs. Or some schools might forgo fielding teams entirely rather than deal with a union.

But if Northwestern and the NCAA can expect their students to carry out athletic heroics and ask them to take serious physical risks — both significant responsibilities by any measure — those institutions should also trust the players enough to give a newly defined relationship an honest try.

Breaking new ground

The disciplinary episode aside, back in my swimming days, I felt strongly that Northwestern had its student athletes’ best interests at heart; it often went the extra mile for us. I am sure that its dedication to and pride in its athletes have not diminished today.

Last week, Northwestern announced the signing of 15 new Wildcat football players. As Kain Colter, the player who launched the union drive, wraps up his college career, the possibility of making history by redefining athletes’ relationship to the university glimmers. And, if school officials can overcome the admittedly powerful inertia of the status quo, it could enhance the learning experience awaiting these new players.

Kari Lydersen is a Chicago journalist and the author of “Mayor 1%: Rahm Emanuel and the Rise of Chicago’s 99%.” She is a leader of the Social Justice News Nexus reporting fellowship at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. She was on the Northwestern swim team from 1993 to 1997 and was a U.S. national team member and two-time national champion in marathon swimming.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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