Byrd: Unionizing college football


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As the world groggily arises out of its post-Super Bowl hangover, with the aid of sunglasses and Alka-Seltzer and begins the long trek back to work, an issue has emerged near Chicago, one of the major epicenters in the history of American trade unionism, that has combined the two seemingly disparate worlds of labor and college football.

A majority of football players at Northwestern, led by quarterback Kain Colter, have filed a petition with the National Labor Relations Board for the right to form a union and collectively bargain with the university. Some of their demands include increasing player-safety standards, banning universities from sticking players with football-related medical expenses, and allowing players to financially benefit from commercial activities related to football.

The NCAA has responded by releasing a statement that pontificated, “This union-backed attempt to turn student-athletes into employees undermines the purpose of college: an education. Student-athletes are not employees, and their participation in college sports is voluntary. We stand for all student-athletes, not just those the unions want to professionalize.”

It’s important to note how incredibly disingenuous a statement glorifying “college amateurism” is coming from the NCAA, an organization that is defined by its complete and utter moral bankruptcy.

The NCAA is a money-generating powerhouse, producing almost $1 billion in revenue in fiscal 2012. Coaches are paid lavish sums of money, with most of them being the highest paid public employees in their respective states. It gets even more decadent when you get to the top brass of the NCAA. As The Nation’s Dave Zirin has pointed out, in 2009 the 14 top NCAA executives raked in almost $6 million.

Meanwhile, the players — who actually produce these gargantuan sums of money — are not entitled to any sort of compensation either from the universities they attend or through revenue streams such as video games or jersey sales (which the NCAA and the universities profit from). They are also subject to lax regulatory standards when it comes to concussions and player safety and can have their scholarships dropped should they suffer a career-ending injuries.

The last sentence of that statement, charging the unions with “professionalizing” student-athletes is particularly infuriating considering that the NCAA has professionalized student-athletes, both in the industry it has created around them and the actual amount of work the athletets are required to preform. A legal review produced by leading labor law experts has pointed out that players spend almost 240 days per year on the sport. Anyone calling that “amateur” doesn’t know the meaning of the word.

In short, there is only one word to describe an organization that extracts an obscene amount of money from young athletes while also working tirelessly to ensure almost no form of compensation (and if you think a fluid scholarship agreement is a just form of compensation for the amount of work top student-athletes, you have no idea what you’re talking about). It’s called a racket.

The only way to break this racket is to afford collective-bargaining rights to players in order to not only ensure safe working conditions but also to create an environment in which they are justly reimbursed for their services. If Northwestern unionizes, so, too, will other universities, top players will be attracted to universities that will guarantee some form of compensation and health standards, and eventually, if schools want to compete in recruitment, they’re going to have to allow unionization.

And the days of the NCAA’s corrupt, damaging, exploitative “amateurism” will come to an end. Someone grab a tissue.

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