Joe’s Corner: Is Unionization the Right Path for Northwestern Football?

In this week’s edition of “Joe’s Corner,” WNUR co-Sports Director Joe Misulonas examines the recent petition for union recognition by Northwestern football players.

After I finished my Tuesday class, I went to the Plex cafeteria to have lunch. Once I got my sandwich and chips, I sat down and turned on my phone to check Twitter. Almost immediately, I was flooded with links to a story about Kain Colter petitioning the National Labor Relations Board for union recognition for him and his teammates.

My first reaction was simply, “Wow.” It’s pretty incredible that Northwestern athletes became the first people to truly stand up and take the fight to the NCAA oligarchy.

For those of you who are not aware of the details of this story, I will briefly summarize: By filing the petition, Colter and his teammates are seeking union recognition, which will guarantee them collective bargaining rights. This is a major deal. Student-athletes have little to no recourse in changing policies at their respective institutions, and even fewer ways to change NCAA policies. If the petition is granted, football players at private universities around the country will be able to unionize.

What this means is more uncertain. According to Colter and National College Players Association, the goal is to ensure better medical care for players, particularly with recent research into the severity of concussions coming to light, and to protect athletes who are unable to play due to injuries cannot have their scholarships revoked. All noble causes, and I applaud Kain Colter and his teammates for taking this historic step.

However, I do have a few concerns about the move towards unionization:

1. Pay-to-Play- The major controversy in college football today is pay-to-play. The idea is simple: Football and basketball student-athletes are bringing in tons of money for athletic departments, none of which goes to players. Shouldn’t players be entitled to a paycheck? They’re the ones bringing in all this money.

I reject pay-to-play arguments. First of all, student-athletes are being paid. They receive free tuition, free room-and-board, and free books. Isn’t that technically payment? At Northwestern University, that’s going to run you close to $60,000 per year, which is nearly $10,000 more than the median household income in the United States. I would consider that fairly good payment.

Second, it’s not like Athletic Departments are swimming in cash. According to USA Today, only 23 out 228 NCAA Division I public schools turned a profit. Only 10% of public schools turned a profit. In 2012, the Northwestern Athletic Department’s Net Income was $0. The team generated $56 million in revenue (lowest in the Big Ten) and spent it all (which meant they also spent the least of any Big Ten school).

Now, the Northwestern players haven’t mentioned pay-to-play as part of their motivation, but ultimately that is what this will lead to. If football players can collectively bargain, then they can make demands of their university, including pay checks. Even if Northwestern players won’t, other players could. This brings up a whole mess of issues for these universities.

Remember the case of Jackson State football earlier this year? The team refused to play a game due to the university’s firing of a coach and the terrible on-campus facilities? What happened the next week? They played their football game because the university threatened to pull their scholarships.

That wouldn’t be possible under collective bargaining. And while I think it’s good that universities can’t threaten athletes with scholarship withdrawals, it also means universities lose their leverage over the situation. If USC’s football players demand to be paid and threaten to strike (which they can do with collective bargaining rights) if they don’t get it, what can USC do? They can’t let the players not play a game or they’ll lose money. But they can’t pay their athletes because then they won’t be able to pay for other things. Which brings me to my next concern:

2. Non-Revenue Sports- This is actually two concerns in one. The first is what happens if the unions are recognized. If recognition occurs, that would mean football players would be considered employees of the their respective universities. So the question becomes, if you’re an employee of the university for being an athlete, are you still a student-athlete? Student-athletes are allowed to have on-campus jobs and to be paid by universities, but they’re being paid for their jobs, not for their athletic endeavors.

But if an athlete is an employee of the university for being an athlete, are they still a student-athlete? And if a they’re not a student-athlete, what are they? How does this affect scholarships? If football players are no longer student-athletes, then is their scholarship compensation?

This complex web of questions means one thing: Non-revenue sports are in jeopardy. It’s possible that if football players are no longer considered student-athletes that their scholarships would no longer be counted towards Title IX compliancy. Title IX is an amendment to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (passed in 1972) that states: “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.” This means universities have to guarantee the same number of scholarships to male athletes and female athletes. If football scholarships no longer count towards Title IX compliancy, private universities will suddenly have 60 or so more female athletes than male athletes. To rectify this, these universities would either have to add new men’s sports, which is unlikely seeing as football and basketball are the only two money-making sports at nearly every single university so adding more sports will only result in a loss of money, or they will have to eliminate women’s sports.

In addition to this legal conundrum is the conundrum of pay-to-play. If unionization leads to pay-to-play, which I believe it will, then non-revenue sports will be in jeopardy. As I mentioned above, only 10% of public universities turned a profit last year, and Northwestern had a net income of $0 in 2012. If universities have to pay their football and basketball players, that means the money these athletic departments would normally use to pay for non-revenue sports would diminish. Again, this could result in major ramifications. Some universities could possibly eliminate non-revenue sports if the amount of money they pay their football players becomes too large.

These concerns are not a criticism against the Northwestern players and their unionization efforts. I believe their goals and intentions are noble. I applaud the leadership shown by Kain Colter, and I believe their efforts are an excellent reflection of the high caliber of individuals enrolled both in Northwestern’s athletic programs as well as the university at large. And I certainly believe athletes need more leverage against the NCAA than they currently do.

I am simply worried that unionization could have drastic consequences that alter college sports forever. Perhaps none of these things will come to pass. Maybe football and basketball players will continue to play as amateurs and refuse paychecks for the love of the game, and their scholarships continue to count towards Title IX. I doubt that will be the case, but I am not a legal expert and cannot predict the future.

Either way, Tuesday’s union petition is an important day in both Northwestern and NCAA history. I hope that all goes according to plan.

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