Tilly: A good win for Northwestern

BY ZACH TILLY | MARCH 27, 2014 5:00 AM

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Northwestern’s football players scored their first meaningful victory in a few years on Wednesday when the Chicago district of the National Labor Relations Board ruled they are legally allowed to form a union.

The ruling, which is likely to be appealed hard, notes that because of the time commitment required of college athletes and because their scholarships are effectively a type of payment tied to their on-field performance, they fit the common-law definition of employees and are thus eligible to unionize.

This is a major first step for college athletes, who are worked like dogs for the financial benefits of other people. The ruling, should it stand, means that unionized college athletes could collectively bargain for improved working conditions (better health-care coverage, concussion testing, etc.) and, perhaps, pay.

Clearly, the labor board’s decision is a big win for college athletes, who have been mistreated as NCAA sports (football and basketball, at least) have become big-money affairs.

It seems appropriate that this ruling dropped in the middle of the greatest conglomeration of professional moneymaking and amateur athletics there is: the NCAA Tournament.

At the NCAA Tournament, everybody gets paid. TV networks rake in ad revenue and pass some of that cash on to the NCAA, which has an $11 billion broadcasting deal with CBS Sports and Turner Broadcasting. Coaches who have led their programs deep into the tournament collect the fat bonuses written into their contracts. Conferences and schools get NCAA kickbacks when their teams win postseason games. Even we get paid if we perform well enough in our respective bracket pools.

And yet for the athletes themselves, we expect the thrill of competition and a decent education to be compensation enough for their part in generating those billions of dollars. It’s clear to me and to a growing corps of others that college athletics is reliant to an unsettling degree on cheap labor to drive its profits.

That certainly ought to change, but don’t expect athletes to receive any cash anytime soon.

In 2012, the NCAA took in $872 million in revenue and the athletics departments of its member institutions took in another $11.4 billion, but these numbers are a little misleading. At all but the top few schools — Texas and Ohio State, for example — athletics departments don’t turn profits and paying athletes would be out of the question budgetarily.

The Northwestern union agitators are far more likely to improve the quality of their health care and the safety of their sport than to get themselves paid, which is good enough for the time being.

In the meantime, the NCAA could ease some of the pressure on its athletes by letting them profit off their own likenesses. Let them sign endorsement deals or sell memorabilia like Terrelle Pryor. No, this solution wouldn’t benefit everybody — mostly just the stars in football and basketball — but it’s something, and it would ease the financial pain for the few guys in college who could otherwise be raking in cash in pro sports.

Andrew Wiggins and Jabari Parker drew eyes and dollars to Kansas and Duke all year; they should be allowed to make Nike commercials. Doug McDermott singlehandedly took Creighton from the Missouri Valley to the promised land of the Big East; the dude has earned himself a leading role in a Subway commercial at least.

If nothing else, we can be happy that the Northwestern football team has brought us one step closer to a more humane brand of college athletics.

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