Northwestern’s Union Efforts Don’t Go Far Enough

WNUR’s Jim Sannes (@JimSannes) says that while Northwestern football’s attempts at becoming a part of a union are a positive step, they do not go far enough.

Kain Colter APULike most of you, I was shocked yesterday to hear that members of the Northwestern football team were filing to become part of a labor union. In case you hadn’t heard, you can find the full original story from Outside the Lines here.

Overall, this proposition is long overdue. These athletes are putting their future health in jeopardy while participating in an activity that makes the NCAA a grotesque amount of money. Contending that they don’t deserve health benefits is ludicrous, and it is surprising in retrospect that no players have pushed for this until now.

However, I don’t think this proposed union goes far enough. As it stands right now, the College Athletes Players Association (CAPA) would only include scholarship athletes that play football and men’s basketball. In this, I have two objections: 1) the union should represent athletes in all sports and 2) it should extend to walk-on athletes, as well.

Representation of All Sports

According to a 2012 report from the American Journal of Sports Medicine, the sport with the second highest number of concussions (behind football) among high schoolers was girl’s soccer. Third was boy’s wrestling. Fourth was girl’s basketball. Boy’s basketball wasn’t even in the top five.

I realize that the report was based on high school athletes, but I would assume the same would hold true for collegiate athletes. Because of this, how can you justify granting health care benefits to men’s collegiate basketball players while the union leaves women’s basketball players out to dry?

“Equal pay for equal work.” President Obama mentioned this in his State of the Union address last night. Yes, his was in relation to the inequality between the salaries of men and women in the work force, but you could easily make the same argument here. If a men’s basketball player is going to receive medical benefits for his collegiate play, then it is unfair to deny a woman that same compensation.

A women’s cross country runner can barely jog when she’s 30 because the ligaments in her ankles are so worn down. A baseball player wakes up with constant headaches after taking a knee in his temple while sliding into second base. Sure, football players are probably more likely to endure life-altering injuries because of the services they provide the NCAA. That does not mean we should leave the others out to dry and pretend their problems don’t exist.

Former WNUR staffer Zach Warren brought up an excellent point on a Facebook post when he said that “only having revenue-producing sports makes a better argument that athletes are employees and are generating funds for the university.” I completely agree with what he’s saying, and, from that aspect, it’s in the best interest of the CAPA to not include non-revenue sports. That doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily fair to athletes in other sports.

Yes, the CAPA representatives mentioned that they hope to add other sports in the future. I just don’t think that it’s sending the right message when you tell these other athletes that they come secondary to those that play football and men’s basketball.

Marginalization of Non-Scholarship Athletes

Let’s say that you are an aspiring defensive end for the Northwestern football team, but you are not on scholarship. Each day at practice, you will most likely end up going head-to-head with a Big Ten tackle as a member of the practice squad. Although, from what I have been able to observe at practice, Coach Fitzgerald and company do an excellent job of trying to reduce the number of hits players take in practice, you are still getting knocked in the head by a 300-pound physical specimen day in and day out. That’s going to take a toll on the body.

These players do not get a free tuition. Yet they still sacrifice as much of their time and as much of their body as the scholarship athletes. If the argument is that doing these activities negatively affects a person’s future livelihood and they deserve compensation for that. Non-scholarship athletes face the same ramifications, so they deserve the same medical compensation.

The best argument against this comes from the same American Journal of Sports Medicine report that I previously cited. In that study, the concussion rate was significantly higher in competition (6.4 concussions per 10,000 athlete exposures) than in practice (1.1 concussions per 10,000 athlete exposures). Because non-scholarship athletes are less likely to experience a high volume of exposures during competition than scholarship athletes, programs may be able to justify not compensating them.

This is not to say that practice injuries do not occur. Just ask Dave Sobolewski who sustained a concussion in practice earlier this month. Ask Karly Roser who sustained an “upper body injury” before this year’s women’s basketball season began and is yet to make her season debut.

There was also this Stone Phillips study on the number of head impacts youth football players sustain. The study showed that most of the hits that the children took that were capable of producing a concussion (based on the number of G-forces applied to the head) occurred during practice. For me, all of this is enough to say that if you’re going to give health benefits to scholarship players, you need to extend those to non-scholarship athletes, as well.

Obviously there would be problems associated with including all varsity sports and all non-scholarship athletes in the proposed medical benefits from CAPA. The costs would be enormous and may result in the reduction of scholarships and the discontinuation of programs due to a lack of funds. However, if CAPA is serious about this very worthy cause, they need to go all the way and make sure all of those that are affected receive the protection they deserve.

One comment

  • Your second paragraph said it all… Men’s Football and Men’s Basketball make the NCAA a grotesque amount of money. Other sport programs are a drain for most colleges. Giving these kind of benefits to money suckers will just make them more liability, and get more sport programs cancelled. It will say other athletes are worse than secondary when their activity is ended at most Universities.

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