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Why you should support the union drive by NCAA athletes

A letter to college football fandom by a former Northwestern football player

April 3, 2014 8:30AM ET

To college football fans everywhere:

I am a former Northwestern college football player. I have two titanium rods in my legs: one in my left tibia and one in my right tibia. Living with these foreign objects in my body is something that physically bothers me on a day-to-day basis, and I am only 28. I didn’t get into a car accident, or break my leg playing ball, the way Louisville college basketball player Kevin Ware did during his team’s quarterfinal match-up in the NCAA Tournament against Duke last year. The rods in my legs are a result of surgeries that I received in college at 19 and 20 from serious stress fractures developed from playing football.

I am writing this article to explain why the College Athletes Players Association (CAPA) union effort led by former Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter is a good thing for college sports.

Medical protection and continued post-career health care for former athletes is one of the union’s main goals. Former college athletes like me, who have suffered devastating injuries during their athletic careers, are expected to cover what may be lifelong expenses from those injuries on their own. In my case, having an annual MRI and CAT scans on both legs can easily cost thousands of dollars out of pocket. By joining a union, America’s future student athletes may free themselves from worries about the potential cost of continued medical bills after they leave college, including, as in my case, the cost of further surgery.

Critics might object that we athletes know what we sign up for — education in exchange for athletic contribution — and that sports injuries are an unfortunate but known risk. This may be true, but such hardships don’t cross the mind of a young athlete seizing the opportunity to play at an elite level, go to college, experience a new environment and achieve a newfound status in life. We put it all on the line for the love of the game and for you, the fans. Although there is risk involved in playing, we do not expect to be all but abandoned after we leave college.  

There is no written policy within the NCAA that requires university athletic programs to cover medical expenses of players after they graduate. Like Ware’s fracture, my bone has healed, but complications and chronic pain from the incisions of the rods continue. This suffering, along with the long-term cost of treatment, is something I will deal with the rest of my life, but it is not something I signed up for. This is why I completely agree with the formation of a college athlete union that will have the ability to negotiate for extended medical protection and other rights. 

Each year the NCAA generates more money and coaches get paid more and more, while athletes and their families struggle to make do during college, let alone after their careers are over.

“Big time” college football is a job, something that the NCAA’s preferred phrase “student athlete” obscures. According to the official document from the groundbreaking March 26 decision by National Labor Relations Board Regional Director Peter Ohr, “Northwestern Football players dedicate 40 to 50 hours per week to football-related activities during the football season.” This is a bigger time commitment than the one given by the professors who are teaching on campus. Such labor by football players and other athletes produces $1 billion annually for the NCAA. While the NCAA calls us “amateurs,” a more accurate description would be employees who aren’t fairly compensated.  

Author Jeffrey W.C. Yarbrough (right) in a game versus Michigan State
Courtesy of Jeff Yarbrough

I also favor CAPA’s goal of securing additional compensation beyond what the typical athletic scholarship provides: tuition, room and board, books and school fees. Northwestern football players, many of whom live off campus after their sophomore year, receive a stipend of $1,200 to $1,500 monthly. This amount is not enough for most of the student athletes living in Evanston — rent alone, without utilities, can range from $700 to $900 for someone living with a roommate. Without additional financial backing from parents, a good number of elite college athletes, who do not have time to take second jobs, live below the poverty line.

Each year the NCAA generates more money, administrators live comfortably and coaches get paid more and more — some as much as $7 million a year — while athletes and their families struggle to make do during college, let alone after their careers are over. The mother of one of my ex-teammates came to only one of his games in his four-year career because she could not afford to buy a plane ticket to see him play. Such injustice has only gotten worse. Not only has the NCAA not updated its bylaws to offer better financial support to its amateur student athletes, it has more strictly prohibited its athletes from supporting themselves outside of playing for their institutions. For instance, former Ohio State quarterback Terrelle Pryor, now in the NFL, felt the need to barter his Big Ten championship ring to get a tattoo he wanted. The NCAA suspended him for five games the following season for his action but allowed him to play in the all-important BCS bowl game that year. (Such is the hypocrisy of the NCAA.) None of Pryor’s critics felt the need to ask why a star quarterback generating millions of dollars for his university and the NCAA would need to pawn a ring for a simple tat.

The NCAA has enough money to extend medical protections for injured athletes, it has enough to provide the full cost of attending college and it has the ability next year to change a couple of its ridiculous bylaws that deny college athletes the rights of their nonathletic college peers: the ability to enter the free market and profit off their talents and likenesses. Every college student in America has that ability except athletes under the NCAA. It is time to give players a fair share and allow them to negotiate what they deserve. The formation of a union is the first step. Without a collective voice, college athletes can expect that 10, 20 or even 40 years from now, the NCAA will continue to repeat the same canards about amateurism, because it’s too invested in profit motives to do what is just.

While we begin our fight, I’d like you to do something. The next time you watch a college game, ask yourself: Should I really be supporting this system that exploits players who give their all on the field for my enjoyment? Am I OK with seeing athletes injured, knowing that they may not receive medical care after their careers are over? If not, please voice your support for the union drive. Thank you.


Jeffrey W.C. Yarbrough 

Jeffrey W.C. Yarbrough is a 2009 Teach For America corps member and a current elementary teacher in Chicago. He also is the founder of CTG SPORTS, a Chicago-based non-profit dedicated in providing students with a high quality affordable sports curriculum. He played football for Northwestern from 2004 to 2008.

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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