On Friday, Northwestern University’s scholarship football players voted whether to certify the College Athletes Players Association, a group that would be the first players’ union in college sports. If the vote fails — which I believe it will — it will be caused in large part by the university and the NCAA, which have all but waged a full-on assault on the efforts of former quarterback Kain Colter and others.
It’s not surprising that these two entities are acting in their best interests, and there’s a case to be made that the National Labor Relations Board’s March 26 ruling, which deemed college athletes to be employees rather than simply student-athletes, may not be the best way to reform the NCAA’s rotten core. The methods these billion-dollar entities have implemented in order to argue their side, however, prove that there needs to be a powerful, organized body voicing the concerns of college athletes.
The money made from college athletics is staggering. For example, ESPN paid the NCAA $5.64 billion over 12 years for the rights to college football’s playoff series. That works out to be nearly $40 million per game. This money goes into the pockets of NCAA administrators, universities, coaches, trainers — everyone involved in making the product. Except, of course, the athletes. The athletes who are so powerless under the current system that they do not even hold the rights to their own likenesses. This means that, under the current system, someone like Markel Starks sees nothing from any No. 5 Georgetown jersey sold during his time here, not to mention no portion of the $4 million Georgetown makes every year from the Big East’s East’s broadcasting contract with Fox Sports 1.
The NLRB decision at Northwestern, which is currently under review by the national branch of the agency and being appealed by the university, determined that university scholarship football players are treated enough like university employees to warrant the creation of a union to represent them. While the decision gives actual legal grounding against the NCAA’s constant assertion of the sanctity of amateurism, it doesn’t give players the right to make money off their own image or any cut of the money the NCAA or school makes from TV networks.
The problem for Colter and college athletes everywhere, however, is that the side with which they negotiate is already well-organized, flush with cash and the sole holder of the position of power. An April 24 article in The New York Times, “At Northwestern, a Blitz to Defeat an Effort to Unionize,” outlines exactly how dangerous this one-sided negotiation is for the rights of players. Pat Fitzgerald, Northwestern’s football coach, has abused the influence of his position by stating to players that he and the university, not CAPA, know what’s best for the players: “Understand that by voting to have a union, you would be transferring your trust from those you know — me, your coaches and the administrators here — to what you don’t know — a third party who may or may not have the team’s best interests in mind.”
Never mind that the union’s explicit purpose is, in fact, to advocate for the players’ best interest. Never mind that unionization would still allow players to exercise their trust for Fitzgerald and their school — it just would ensure that that’s not their only option. Never mind that Fitzgerald makes $2.2 million a year, more than anyone else employed by Northwestern. A football coach exercises enormous influence over the hearts and minds of his players, and while it is disappointing that Fitzgerald believes that the current system best represents the needs of his players, it is not at all surprising that some players, like wide receiver Kyle Prater, have sided with their coach.
Equally disheartening is a document obtained by CBS Sports created by the university and Fitzgerald meant to provide athletes with information to influence their decision. One section contained answers to questions submitted by players about the process, with one asking “How can we get back to being students and not employees?” The university resorted to semantics, saying that “Northwestern agrees with you that you men are students, not employees … [and] you can still express your desire to ‘get back to being students’ by voting ‘No.’” Such a vote will not invalidate the evidence provided by the NLRB of current practices that prompted the “employee” designation — it will only obscure it under words like “student-athlete” and “amateurism” the NCAA uses to mask the clear exploitation of the athletes working to make it and its member universities money. Northwestern scholarship athletes will still be students at the university if unionized, and they will still be employees making their employer money if not.
Even during a time of immense growth for college football — where a school like Northwestern can spend $20 million a year on its football program and make a 36 percent return on investment—the laborers (oops, I mean “student-athletes”) that make this all possible do not have any control over how this money is used. Without any negotiating pressure from its employees — without a union to provide a unified negotiating force — Northwestern is under no pressure to treat them as legitimate partners.
All that the players really gain by joining a union is a means to express their concerns in a way that forces the university to listen — and not even to issues that should matter to a head coach in the long run. If Fitzgerald and Northwestern are this worried that they can no longer ignore the concerns of a group of people who earned the university $27 million in 2012 — afraid of even hearing the collective voice of those who proudly represent the Wildcats on the field — the heroic efforts of Kain Colter and others may not even be going far enough.
Hunter Main is a junior in the College. He is a former managing editor of The Hoya and currently a member of its board of directors.