Join 3,494 readers in helping fund MetaFilter (Hide)


"This is about finally giving college athletes a seat at the table."
January 28, 2014 11:12 AM   Subscribe

Northwestern Football Players Are Trying To Unionize. More coverage from Deadspin, ThinkProgress, and Bleacher Report. The NCAA's predictable response.
posted by tonycpsu (56 comments total) 13 users marked this as a favorite

 
Forming/joining a union for college athletes would formally state the already-obvious: they are, indeed, paid professionals. A labor union, by defination, consists of laborers, not amateurs playing for the love of the sport.

Which (to me) seems a good thing, and would return colleges and universities to their stated reason for existance: education.
posted by easily confused at 11:18 AM on January 28 [11 favorites]


Awesome
posted by Golden Eternity at 11:22 AM on January 28 [2 favorites]


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.

How dare these people try to tear the fig-leaf of academics from the industry that is college sports! Have they no shame in their pursuit of... whatever it is the little players actually pursue off field?
posted by Slackermagee at 11:22 AM on January 28 [6 favorites]


NCAA goes to the "student-athlete" farce that TFA points out they resorted to after being called out on it in the 50s. (And the lovely "voluntary" bit .. Yeah.. Entirely voluntary.. )

Very interesting to see where this goes.
posted by k5.user at 11:23 AM on January 28


I have a longer rant about this, but one of my basic beliefs, here, is:

Either everyone gets paid or no one does. It's not a class. It's a job for the school. If it's really for the education, let students also coach the games. Unpaid. And recruit. Unpaid. And report on them. Unpaid. Drive all money back to the school to be spread around programs.
posted by chasing at 11:25 AM on January 28 [20 favorites]


I like this bit of phrasing:
Student-athletes are not employees, and their participation in college sports is voluntary.
I'd like to see this argued in court. They are contracted to provide a service to the institution, under the direction of the institution, and in Div. I are often compensated with a college scholarship.

I was a "student-employee" in college. I voluntarily provided labor for my school and was compensated with a "work-study grant." Don't see why I was any different than a student-athlete.
posted by muddgirl at 11:25 AM on January 28 [5 favorites]


The NCAA's most impressive achievement is making the NFL look good by comparison.
posted by The Card Cheat at 11:29 AM on January 28 [22 favorites]


"the offensive shop steward seems to be balking at the head coach's field goal attempt proposal. we'll be back for a resolution after this commercial break."

(and if there is no resolution, we'll just keep running commercials.)
posted by bruce at 11:29 AM on January 28 [6 favorites]


So would this be a ...

[puts sunglasses on]

Wildcat strike?

[Yeeeeeaaaaaaah]
posted by srboisvert at 11:31 AM on January 28 [63 favorites]


I can't help but think this is doomed because they'll be ruled to not be employees. However, even trying takes serious, serious nerve and they should be applauded for that.
posted by hoyland at 11:34 AM on January 28 [1 favorite]


GODDAMMIT SRBOISVERT I WAS RUSHING IN HERE TO MAKE THAT EXACT SAME JOKE
posted by saladin at 11:39 AM on January 28 [6 favorites]


God damn.

Chicago, represent.
posted by hal_c_on at 11:40 AM on January 28 [4 favorites]


The unintended consequence if they succeed (at least in the short term) is that the obstacles confronting private institutions become even harder to overcome. The decision will only apply to private institutions (such as Northwestern) while the majority of Football U schools are state institutions and beyond the reach of the NLRA.

Assuming I was reading the last paragraph of the first link properly anyway.
posted by Fezboy! at 11:45 AM on January 28


This union-backed attempt to turn student-athletes into employees undermines the purpose of college: an education.

HA HA HA HA...nah, seriously tho... *burns Rashidi Wheeler's medical records*

However, we agree that the health and academic issues being raised by our student-athletes and others are important ones that deserve further consideration.

Yeah, the NCAA, they were gonna get right on that.
posted by Smedleyman at 11:46 AM on January 28 [1 favorite]


The unintended consequence if they succeed (at least in the short term) is that the obstacles confronting private institutions become even harder to overcome.

My impression is that large football programs really, really, really want to pay their athletes. If private institutions are "forced" to pay their athletes through collective bargaining, large state schools will do everything in their power to jump on that bandwagon.
posted by muddgirl at 11:49 AM on January 28 [2 favorites]


What I'm trying to say is that the obstacle to paying Div 1 football players comes from the NCAA, not from the football programs themselves. The NCAA does have a bit of a point in that if we start paying Jonny Manziel-types what they're worth, there will be a lot less money for sports that don't make any money for the school, which is a huge problem for an organization devoted to student-athletes.
posted by muddgirl at 11:51 AM on January 28


HA HA HA HA...nah, seriously tho

We're talking about Northwestern here, not Florida or something. One of the players on NU's #3 ranked Rose Bowl team was my lab partner in a mid-level science course. This course was the real thing not some gimme. Most of the people in it were pre-med. I can't for the life of me remember his name, unfortunately, but given this was 18 years ago (OH MY GOD KILL ME) I hope I can be forgiven.

So, yeah, generally speaking the purpose of going to Northwestern is getting an education, even if you play sports.
posted by Justinian at 11:59 AM on January 28


The reason I went to my alma mater was to get an education, and I did student research as part of that education... but the stipend I got payed didn't hurt at all.
posted by muddgirl at 12:09 PM on January 28


If the NCAA really wants to get around this, they need to declare that all athletic scholarships and other benefits (meals, housing, tutors, etc.) last for five years and are irrevocable, even if the kid stops playing. Yes, even if he signs the scholarship acceptance paper and immediately says, "Fuck you guys, I'm not playing another second. I'm here for the education." That way, if they're really "rewarding" success in a non-academic endeavor, then it's a reward -- be a really good football player or swimmer or golfer or whatever in high school, you get to go to college for free.

Maybe throw in some minimum GPA to keep the scholarship, but give the erstwhile athlete two years to get up to it, in recognition that he or she was spending more time being a good football player or swimmer or golfer or whatever than learning how to be a good college student.
posted by Etrigan at 12:17 PM on January 28 [9 favorites]


I hire and train student workers and they get paid real money for their very real work. Some of them are probably on merit or scholastic scholarships too, but they also get to have jobs on campus. (Not a Div I school.) My position on this has probably changed a lot in the last few years, but it's weird that you put a football in their hands for 20 or 30 hours a week or whatever and suddenly that's different. I don't know that a union is the best way to bring change, but I think change is needed.
posted by jetlagaddict at 12:19 PM on January 28 [4 favorites]


My impression is that most schools say they are really into paying their athletes but aren't exactly putting a whole lot of time/money into lobbying the NCAA to make that happen. You don't see, e.g., UNL running "we want to pay your Huskers but the big, mean parent organization won't allow this, please hope us" ads during televised games. Sure, when the local press asks the AD whether he supports paying athletes a stipend he agrees, but talk is cheap. Especially Div 1 school/NCAA talk.

Division 1 football and basketball are already monetized similarly to their professional equivalents. The money to pay players anything approaching the value of their contribution to those schools will come out of budgets that are chock full of sinecures for past heroes of the system and the recruiting networks that feed those schools. There is a lot of personal capital tied into that easy cash and it is hard for the people behind those programs to cut friends and colleagues from the gravy train.

But paying athletes isn't really the current focus. Per the NCPA/CAPA the goals are better protection from and treatment of concussions and other medical protections. Also to fully guarantee a scholarship regardless of player ability to play and to provide for educational costs for achieving a degree if that time exceeds their NCAA eligibility. These are the sorts of things that will be easy to stick a particular school with but difficult to broaden to *all* member programs, regardless of their nature.

I'm not bemoaning unionization at all. I'm all for it, actually. I'm just cynical enough to think that the result won't be protections for all based on the leverage applied to private schools. Instead I see private schools dropping their football/basketball programs. In other words, we need to facilitate all student athletes being able to unionize so that the entire class of individuals can use that shield to bargain against the money behind the NCAA.
posted by Fezboy! at 12:22 PM on January 28


given this was 18 years ago (OH MY GOD KILL ME)

I remember that trip to the Rose Bowl! (I won't tell you how old I am.) That was the year the next door neighbour had given up his season tickets because he was sick of Northwestern being perpetually terrible. He did go to the Rose Bowl, though, which they, of course, lost. The next time they were any good was the year after he died.
posted by hoyland at 12:26 PM on January 28 [2 favorites]


These are the sorts of things that will be easy to stick a particular school with but difficult to broaden to *all* member programs, regardless of their nature.

Guaranteed scholarships, for one, seem like something that the NCAA will have to guarantee program-wide, to protect competition between schools for athletes.

In other words, we need to facilitate all student athletes being able to unionize so that the entire class of individuals can use that shield to bargain against the money behind the NCAA.

I don't know how this would work for states that explicitly forbid public employee unions, like Texas (home of UT, A&M, Baylor, etc. etc.)
posted by muddgirl at 12:28 PM on January 28


Guaranteed scholarships, for one, seem like something that the NCAA will have to guarantee program-wide, to protect competition between schools for athletes

Assuming the NCAA's ultimate goal is to protect competition between schools for athletes. My observation is that their goal isn't nearly so noble.
posted by Fezboy! at 12:33 PM on January 28 [2 favorites]


I'll throw my experience with an NU football player in the ring. The starting tackle for three years had the best grade in the sophomore engineering class I TA'd which had about 50 students. I believe he graduated with a master's in engineering with something like a 3.9 gpa.

Also Northwestern has finished the highest on the ncaa's own academic progress report that tracks graduation rates for the past three years or so. If it was going to start somewhere I'm glad it's at Northwestern.
posted by crashlanding at 12:39 PM on January 28 [3 favorites]


The NCAA does have a bit of a point in that if we start paying Jonny Manziel-types what they're worth, there will be a lot less money for sports that don't make any money for the school, which is a huge problem for an organization devoted to student-athletes.

Which is why it should be severed from college altogether and turned into a true Minor League for the NFL.

Yet Another Thing That Will Never Happen (Probably)
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 12:39 PM on January 28


Instead I see private schools dropping their football/basketball programs.

Private schools with big-time football programs include Notre Dame, USC, Stanford and Miami. Stanford might give up its football team instead of paying players. The other three? No chance. Football is why anyone outside of Indiana has heard of Notre Dame. They have weighed the balance over the last century and found that the exposure and the money are worth the effort and expense.

And basketball makes money for more private schools -- the current incarnation of the Big East is all private schools. Full members, that is -- UConn is an associate member for basketball but still wants to keep its football program.

Paying a stipend and providing benefits similar to what they do for research and teaching assistants would be a trivial amount of money for any power-conference school, especially the private ones. It's the MAC and CUSA level schools that worry about stipend-level money, and that gives the SEC and PAC 12 schools enough voting power to keep the issue off the table entirely, because they're afraid of having to pay competitive salaries to your Johnny Manziels and Jadeveon Clowneys.
posted by Etrigan at 12:41 PM on January 28


Chicago Evanston, represent.
posted by gyc at 12:45 PM on January 28 [3 favorites]


Assuming the NCAA's ultimate goal is to protect competition between schools for athletes. My observation is that their goal isn't nearly so noble.

Their goal is to keep a fine balance between the competing forces that hold their union together (aka, all the schools that agree to be in the NCAA vs. some other athletic organization). The largest schools may all be public, but the NCAA does not want private colleges to close their programs because they can't compete with public ones.
posted by muddgirl at 12:47 PM on January 28


Can someone explain to me why we're assuming that it's the public universities who'd be able to afford to pay players? I realise that small universities (public and private) can't really afford football as it is, but I would kind of expect the big name private football schools are better able to afford to pay players than the public ones. (I mean, I have the impression Notre Dame can produce almost arbitrary amounts of cash if it's football-related.)
posted by hoyland at 12:57 PM on January 28


Which is why it should be severed from college altogether and turned into a true Minor League for the NFL.

It's been pointed out to me that the structure of college football makes it possible to be a fan of a team in ways that a minor league wouldn't. For the most part, players stay for four years, there's no trading, players don't get sent up to the big leagues and veterans don't get sent down. There's a nice story, and there's no chance that the star runningback you were rooting for this year will end up playing for your rivals the next.

In a minor league, there isn't enough stability to really be a fan of a team: who are you rooting for? You can't even get behind the management because they don't have much control over their players, and anyone really good will get called up. And, while college football right now is sort of fun and scrappy because the level of talent isn't as uniform as in the NFL (so different styles of play can be effective), I think as a minor league (focused on development) it would just be obvious that the players aren't that great.

I suppose they could implement the idea where NFL teams license college logos for their farm systems, but also implement some requirement where a draftee has to play in the minors for a few years and can't be traded. But at that point, why not just have the colleges pay the players?
posted by vogon_poet at 1:05 PM on January 28


Can someone explain to me why we're assuming that it's the public universities who'd be able to afford to pay players?

I don't think anyone is. The issue that was raised is that the National Labor Relations Board can't regulate public employee unions, so even if the kids at Northwestern successfully get their union going, it only benefits players at private schools. Players at public schools would have to fight for unions through a different channel.

My argument is that private-school unions negotiations would still help all student-athletes through the mechanism of the NCAA. Fezboy! wants to look at some other, as-yet-unexplained pathway to unionize all student athletes (maybe by arguing that all student athletes are really employees of the private NCAA organization? or overthrowing existing laws that separate public and private institutions?)
posted by muddgirl at 1:08 PM on January 28


Whoooops I seriously misread your question and flipped "public" and "private." Feel free to ignore my comment if I just restated what you already knew.
posted by muddgirl at 1:09 PM on January 28


To actually answer your question, Fezboy!'s claim is that the largest and richest programs are public schools, and that's largely true, at least for football. Forbes ranks the 20 Most Valuable College football programs and I believe 9 of the top 10 are public (Notre Dame being the exception, at #3). Skimming through 11-20, I think USC and Penn State are the only private school there, but I could be missing a few. That's 17 public schools out of 20.

The economics are different for basketball, but basketball programs tend to be smaller.
posted by muddgirl at 1:14 PM on January 28


muddgirl: "I think USC and Penn State are the only private school there"

Penn State's nominally public, but the amount of the state contribution has been dwindling over the last 15 years or so.
posted by tonycpsu at 1:18 PM on January 28


Could someone explain why a NLRA decision wouldn't be at least advisory for the state labor relations boards? I don't quite understand the structure, but it seems crazy that the NLRA can define a class of workers and the state LRBs aren't required or strongly admonished to follow them somehow.

Nothing is going to change right-to-work states, but I think muddgirl has it: the real key is that unionization would reclassify athletes as employees again, and allow them to negotiate a salary closer to their actual contribution to revenues, even if they have to do so individually in right-to-work states.

Right now, the owners have a union (the NCAA) and the employees aren't even allowed to ask to be paid. That's capital-F capital-U Fucked Up, especially given the race issues.
posted by anotherpanacea at 1:36 PM on January 28 [7 favorites]


Right now, the owners have a union (the NCAA) and the employees aren't even allowed to ask to be paid. That's capital-F capital-U Fucked Up, especially given the race issues.

That's quite a lot of capitalism you've got there.
posted by atbash at 1:52 PM on January 28 [2 favorites]


tonycpsu: Penn State's nominally public, but the amount of the state contribution has been dwindling over the last 15 years or so."

It's a bit more complicated than that. Penn State is not technically a "state school." PA has a weirdo category called state-related schools, which basically means they get less money, but more independence. PSU, Pitt, Temple, and Lincoln are the state-related schools; the actual state schools are places you probably wouldn't have heard of if you aren't from the area, like Edinboro and Kutztown.

Currently the state provides about 13% of the PSU operating budget.
posted by Chrysostom at 3:08 PM on January 28 [2 favorites]


If the NCAA really wants to get around this,

They'll just say no and then win any ensuing litigation.
posted by jpe at 3:15 PM on January 28


It's been pointed out to me that the structure of college football makes it possible to be a fan of a team in ways that a minor league wouldn't.

All that might be true - but the question is, does it matter? Pretty much every other league of every other sport in every other country in the world doesn't couple their development to higher education providers. And it works. As someone else suggested above, if this was a real amateur, student activity, then the coaches and everyone else would be students too. That's how it works elsewhere.
posted by Jimbob at 5:28 PM on January 28 [2 favorites]


Chrysostom: "It's a bit more complicated than that. Penn State is not technically a "state school." PA has a weirdo category called state-related schools, which basically means they get less money, but more independence."

Yeah, my wife went to IUP, so I'm aware of that distinction, and I guess for the purposes of this discussion, unionized student athletes would be considered private sector employees. Still, with hundreds of millions of dollars in public funds going to the institution and a strongly anti-union governor sitting on the board of trustees, my guess is it would be far more complicated for PSU than it would be for Northwestern.
posted by tonycpsu at 5:55 PM on January 28


Pretty much every other league of every other sport in every other country in the world doesn't couple their development to higher education providers. And it works.

But can they get people to seriously care about the minor-league/D-league games? Look at minor-league baseball: it does okay, but even the Durham Bulls or the PawSox don't have fans like a UF football game. All those things I mentioned about college football arguably are what make people fans; if a normal minor league couldn't get viewers, that's a lot of advertising dollars going away.

On paying the football players: as mentioned above, football players seem like they could easily be treated the same as other "student-employees" (like grad students); many football teams already employ "graduate assistants" in low-level coaching roles. The only problem I can see is what the football team does with the walk-ons and non-scholarship players -- are they allowed to play for nothing? Would a player's union try to prevent that?
posted by vogon_poet at 6:11 PM on January 28


vogon_poet: "But can they get people to seriously care about the minor-league/D-league games?"

Football/soccer has a totally different structure. Essentially, there aren't major league clubs with minor league affiliates.* All the clubs are arranged in a pyramid with promotion and relegation between levels of the pyramid based on who finishes top and bottom of each league. If you're, I don't know, Arsenal, you might go and buy a young player from, say, Sheffield United down in League One** because you think he's going to turn out to be really good. Maybe you have him play in your reserves (that's one of the things that was being ignored in the footnote), but you also might loan him out to some lower level club, where he's going to get playing time and gain experience. Then when he's good enough for the Premiership, Arsenal already have him under contract and he can come play for them. (The US has a weird facsimile of this system in that there is a pyramid system, but there isn't promotion and relegation and I think MLS contracts are all held by the league, so the MLS seems to make more trades than other leagues, where you mostly buy and sell contracts. And, of course, the MLS has a college draft, which is unheard of elsewhere.)

Same deal in handball, afaik, just on a smaller scale and with less money involved.

*Strictly speaking this is false in at least two senses, but I'm going to ignore that. And I'm totally ignoring youth setups.
**League One is the third tier of the pyramid. Don't ask.

posted by hoyland at 6:27 PM on January 28


I think this is the only unionization effort where I would be in favor of scabs and police brutality.

Same deal in handball,

If you're going to use a witty neologism, just go all the way and call it handegg. It's clearly not a ball.
posted by clarknova at 6:56 PM on January 28


their participation in college sports is voluntary.

Does this guy actually believe that most people are at their current job because they were kidnapped and forced into it, or what?
posted by the agents of KAOS at 7:01 PM on January 28


But can they get people to seriously care about the minor-league/D-league games?

Well I don't know - again, does it matter? Who's worse for it? I continue to be shocked and stunned that in the US, high-school-level sport is a Big Deal - it gets reported on the news, in the papers, thousands of people show up for games. Why? It's high-school kids. Why do they need that sort of pressure/fame/adulation/weirdness messing with their schooling?

Where I went to high-school, the school had a football team, cricket team, basketball team, whatever you like. The only people who turned up to watch the kids games were the parents. Maybe. The only place the scores were reported was in the school's weekly 4-page newsletter. I don't think those kids were any the worse for it - playing for fun, rather than fame, and I don't think our serious, professional football / cricket / basketball whatever leagues are the worse for it either.
posted by Jimbob at 7:26 PM on January 28


Oh please don't unionize.

I hate it when unions get the blame for a declining industry and college football is due for a huge fall when the head injury lawsuit happens.

And it will happen, unions or not.
posted by surplus at 7:36 PM on January 28 [1 favorite]


Well I don't know - again, does it matter? Who's worse for it?

It matters because there's an insane amount of TV money on the line for college football and basketball: money that currently goes to pay for other university programs. While some DI programs are money sinks, a ton make a huge profit, especially factoring in alumni donations.

I agree that the religion surrounding high school football is just nuts though, mainly because the players are actually children, and there's not even TV money to justify it.
posted by vogon_poet at 7:40 PM on January 28


clarknova: " If you're going to use a witty neologism, just go all the way and call it handegg. It's clearly not a ball."

Er... handball.
posted by hoyland at 8:30 PM on January 28


While some DI programs are money sinks, a ton make a huge profit, especially factoring in alumni donations.

A little more than half of Division I-A college football and (men's) basketball programs make a profit (including donations), and well under 1/5 of athletic departments overall make a consistent profit. The new PAC-12 and SEC networks will help bring that up some, but most Division I programs are money sinks.
posted by Etrigan at 8:38 PM on January 28 [1 favorite]


It's worth noting that the Big Ten, which Northwestern is a part of, is extremely successful as the Big Ten Network is a huge cash cow. Some schools have been viewing their Division I-A programs as an investment for the past few years hoping to cash in similarly (Rutgers and Maryland who are joining the Big Ten next year for example) by making the jump to one of the power conferences that brings lots of money via TV deals.

I believe the estimated number is that BTN brings each school around 17M annually which can go a long way towards making a school's athletic programs profitable.
posted by crashlanding at 8:53 PM on January 28


Yeah, but I have a sneaking suspicion the conference network gravy train is going to derail over the coming years as people start using streaming services and demanding more competitive pricing from cable/satellite providers. The sports networks other than ESPN tend to be heavily subsidized channels compared to the actual ratings they pull in, and distortions like that can only last for so long before someone comes in and offers a more equitable model where people pay for content they actually use. (I recognize people have been predicting this for decades, but we now actually have the technology for content providers to run an end around the carriers.)
posted by tonycpsu at 9:06 PM on January 28


I'm not saying it's a smart plan, but could explain why some programs have been running at a deficit over the past few years. Plus, it's hard to quantify how division I-A athletics affects alumni donations and I'm not sure if those are included on the balance sheet.

I also don't think streaming makes much of a difference because you have to subscribe to the content first to get access to high quality streams. Live sports is one of the few remaining draws of cable/satellite.
posted by crashlanding at 9:10 PM on January 28


Go U, N…ion? - some comprehsensive coverage from one of Northwestern's better sports blogs.
posted by ursus_comiter at 9:11 AM on January 29 [2 favorites]


I also like Sippin on Purple's coverage, which includes a few reactions from other NU players.
posted by ursus_comiter at 1:01 PM on January 29


Football workers of the world unite
posted by tonycpsu at 3:19 PM on February 18 [1 favorite]


« Older Writer Teju Cole, perhaps inspired by Agha Shahid ...  |  Curious about which sport has ... Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments