Like many other college football fans who grew up on the 1950’s, I gloried in the triumphs of Notre Dame – particularly the line from their fight song, “…wake up the echoes…”
Yesterday, a different kind of “echoes” was wakened from their slumbers – the echoes of Samuel Gompers, of Eugene Debs, of John L. Lewis and Walter Reuther. For those of you not attuned to the history of labor movements in America, these men were considered “giants” in their efforts to gain fair working wages and safe working environments from the so-called “robber barons” of Nineteenth Century industry. For the most part, they were successful and for decades thereafter, American workers were no longer intimidated by, shall we say, “Darwinian capitalism”.
Today, labor unions no longer hold the esteem they once did, precisely because as they grew in power they relied on the practices their founders sought to repel. And in the years immediately after World War II, the likes of Jimmy Hoffa and his Teamsters Union abused the “union label” such that presently union membership and respect are at an all-time low in American opinion polls.
So, now, some football players from one of America’s finest academic institutions have petitioned the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to recognize them as “employees”, thus giving them the right to form a union. And they have been successful!
Such is the plight of college athletics today and the test will be whether Northwestern University can successfully appeal the NLRB decision and deny its graduating quarterback, Kain Colter, who, through the College Athletes Players Association (CAPA), has brought the suit, the right to gain “employee” status at Northwestern.
Ludicrous! How in the world did we get here!? What are these kids thinking!?
Perhaps there is a multitude of responses to such epithets and questions, but mostly it seems to be rooted in the plethora of lawyers looking for “cases” and, but this seems to be the “kicker”, billion dollar television contracts with athletic conferences and the NCAA, million dollar coaching contracts, and exorbitant salaries for athletic administrators. So much money is like blood in shark-infested waters. They just can’t help themselves. Then, there’s the fact that the United Steelworkers Union has been picking up the lawyers’ tabs. This concoction makes for a very potent brew which Northwestern, the NCAA, and the majority of institutions sponsoring big-time athletic programs can neither stomach nor digest.
What CAPA has essentially requested as a “union” seems reasonable enough on the surface given the current climate of collegiate athletics – guaranteed medical coverage for sport-related medical expenses for present and past players, some assurance of better procedures and protocols to reduce and treat head injuries, and permitting players to pursue their own commercial sponsorships. The settlement with EA Sports earlier this year seems to have prompted this point.
OK…so CAPA wants to have players “sit at the bargaining table” just as other unions do and negotiate the stated items. Keeping in mind, nevertheless, that this decision only affects private institutions, of which there are roughly 17 in the NCAA’s Division I, just how much could be “negotiated” when the two sides sit down? Obviously, there would be the question of the monetary value of their educations (as scholarships). Other options could include squad sizes, coaching hires/fires, specific travel arrangements for away competition, specific degree requirements, and as preposterous as it may sound, the number of years an athlete may stay on scholarship to earn a degree.
While CAPA’s intentions may seem innocent enough in wanting some voice in their treatment and in their futures, and their initial requests appear sincere, it is naïve for them to think that this will not open a Pandora’s Box of intrigues and subterfuge which could spell the demise of college athletics as we know it today.
Where will the CAPA’s leadership as a union ultimately rest? Will it be absorbed by some who never played college athletics, but who have law degrees? Will there be “union organizers” and “membership drives” like Hoffa did with the Teamsters? The possibilities for abuse are endless.
Before one prejudges me on my perspective of unions as unions, let me suggest two things as pertains to unions being in my huddle: 1) somebody needs to read George Orwell’s classic parable, Animal Farm, and perceive the dichotomy between the farmers and the animals less as a political allegory of communism and more as a cautionary tale of unions gone awry; and 2) it is about time the NCAA did something about what is happening to big-time college athletics as a result of the glut, indeed, the embarrassment of riches it is enjoying through its television and branding rights.
In the meantime, those of us who played and coached because we loved the game can only sit back in puzzled wonderment and wistfully muse, “What’s happened to my
game and why is there a union rep in my huddle?”
Dr. Ogden is Chair of Sports Management at the Academy. He has been in higher education for more than four decades. He has served as a college dean, vice-president, president, football coach, and athletic director.