Couch: Proposed college union would force players to be heard
CHICAGO — The ideal isn't a bad one. Amateur college sports could be used to improve health and fitness, teach sportsmanship, promote school spirit and increase educational opportunities.
Does anyone believe that's where we are? Or is college sports just a money grab now?
When Northwestern football players, led by former quarterback Kain Colter, filed with the National Labor Relations Board on Tuesday in Chicago to become a labor union, it shouldn't have been a surprise. For now, that union is going by the name College Athletes Players Association, and has the formidable United Steelworkers on its side. Former UCLA linebacker Ramogi Huma, founder of the National College Players Association advocacy group, is leading with Colter.
This was a big step in trying to change this system, a smart step. Universities have shown an eagerness to crush anyone in their way of the escalating billions of dollars in the college-football industry. Their goal, even while trying to edge smaller conferences out of the money, has been to keep the little guy just happy enough to shut him up.
They blew it with the athletes, though, underestimating them. They have been dismissive of complaints and issues. That's not so easy when the United Steelworkers are knocking on your door.
If this move is successful, it surely will lead to more unions, and athletes getting protections, though there are a ton of legal hurdles. For now, if you throw out the phony ideal, athletes are just unpaid labor.
This was the first time college athletes have tried for a union. Colter said that nearly every player on the team signed up. Northwestern officials said that they're proud of their students for taking a leadership role in something they feel strongly about, but that they don't consider football players to be employees of the university. They don't consider them to be labor.
So they're going to fight this. And that's what it's all going to come down to, whether athletes in revenue sports — football and basketball — actually are employees of the university or are student-athletes.
Honestly, every time I hear that term, "student-athletes," I reflexively giggle.
"The argument here is there needs to be better protection and more guarantees," Colter said. "Our rights aren't being taken care of. We're not sitting here saying we have the perfect model for how things should be set up. But players deserve to have a voice.
"There is no way student-athletes should be stuck with medical bills from their playing days. Graduation rates hover around 50 percent; this is an unacceptable trend. I came to the conclusion these injustices exist in NCAA sports because athletes don't have a seat at the table."
The first reaction seems to be that of suspicion, that what these guys are truly after is pay for play, a slice of the billions. But rather than pick a fight over such a divisive issue, they don't even mention it.
They're talking, instead, about finding ways to make the game and practices safer from concussions; a system of due process to keep players from losing their scholarships at a coach's whim. They want guaranteed scholarships even if players get hurt. And they want measures after players are done with football that will continue to cover tuition and costs to cover sports-related injuries.
So I asked Huma what, specifically, the union's goal is for being paid for playing.
"Our position is that college athletes are already paid," he said. "That's the argument being put to the NLRB, that we're paid to play, paid scholarship.
"The question is, are there enough resources being directed to protect players? Our answer is no. Players deserve a seat at the table."
This is so smart. How can anyone argue with players asking for a cut of the pie to improve their safety, health and education? They are turning the ideal back on the NCAA.
And it's a key point, too, for them to say they are already being paid. The only way you can consider players to be employees is if you consider their scholarships and benefits to be compensation for work.
So this movement isn't about greed. These players have the right things in their hearts. If not, well, shame on them. But Huma points out that as TV dollars escalate, they go to coach salaries and bigger, better stadiums and facilities and luxury suites.
At the college coaches convention in Indianapolis earlier this month, Baylor athletic director Ian McCaw told me the day will come soon that a head coach will be paid $10 million a year.
But how about paying for independent doctors, not subject to pressure from coaches, on the sidelines during games to judge whether a player hit in the head should go back in?
This is the right play, whether it works or not. If football players, and men's basketball players, get union status, then they figure to collectively bargain. That includes pay. But also, the NFL players association has bargained limits on hitting in practice. Theoretically, that's something CAPA could do.
The problem is that universities have gotten greedy, looking out only for themselves while grabbing for the big bucks. Huma said the NCAA is more interested in chasing Johnny Manziel's autographs than in taking responsibility for player health, or coming up with true safety measures for concussions.
That said, NCAA President Mark Emmert told me recently that the NCAA will come out with a new set of recommended concussion protocols soon.
And the most powerful five conferences — Big Ten, SEC, ACC, Pac 12 and Big 12 — all are grabbing for more power by trying to set up their own rules. But within that, they also are calling for some of the same things Colter and Huma are talking about.
"That may be the direction they appear to be headed, but at the same time, nobody has asked the players how they feel about it," Colter said. "The system right now almost represents a dictatorship. Nobody has asked the players for their opinion, and that's the problem."
There will be all sorts of legal hurdles to clear. These players might not get what they're after.
But the guys with the power were never going to give in from public pressure alone. At the very least, for once, they're going to have to listen.