Northwestern Football Players Wanting to Unionize Have Some Good Ideas, But Unionizing Isn't One of Them
By Tony Gerdeman
COLUMBUS, Ohio — It was a Tuesday afternoon like any other – I was looking for something to watch that was interesting enough to have on in the background, but not too interesting to keep me from working.
Basically, I was just minding my business, dealing with the day as it came. Then, out of the clear cold blue, I received an ESPN alert on my phone telling me that an undisclosed number of Northwestern football players were seeking to be represented by a labor union. Before I could even finish reading the headline I was rolling my eyes in near disgust.
My question was what could players possibly want that they aren't getting now – other than legitimized cash in hand – that would warrant something as drastic and over-dramatic as a union?
I absolutely abhor the notion that college athletes are being treated poorly, given the sheer number of advantages that an athletic scholarship provides. Because of my stance, I was immediately ready to dismiss and dispute every petulant want that was being requested by the Northwestern players and their mouthpiece, now-former quarterback Kain Colter.
But then I read the National College Players Association's website detailing their desires in this quest for union backing, and I realized that what they're asking for isn't all that unreasonable.
What are they asking for? From their website:
1. Minimize college athletes’ brain trauma risks.
2. Raise the scholarship amount.
3. Prevent players from being stuck paying sports-related medical expenses.
4. Increase graduation rates.
5. Protect educational opportunities for student-athletes in good standing.
6. Prohibit universities from using a permanent injury suffered during athletics as a reason to reduce/eliminate a scholarship.
7. Establish and enforce uniform safety guidelines in all sports to help prevent serious injuries and avoidable deaths.
8. Eliminate restrictions on legitimate employment and players ability to directly benefit from commercial opportunities.
9. Prohibit the punishment of college athletes that have not committed a violation.
10. Guarantee that college athletes are granted an athletic release from their university if they wish to transfer schools.
11.Allow college athletes of all sports the ability to transfer schools one time without punishment.
Yes, some of the wants are pie-in-the-sky, like number nine, which basically requests that schools don't get punished for cheating because there are too many innocents caught in the crossfire.
But even if it is pie-in-the-sky, what's wrong with wanting just the guilty parties to be punished? That seems like the perfect usage of logic to me.
I will admit that there are some tremendous ideas listed above, and the NCAA and its member institutions would regain public favor if they started to move towards enacting many of these proposals.
However, the formation of a players' union to get these things enacted is just too drastic a move to think that it won't cause massive changes to a system that works pretty well, and has for decades.
You may not believe that last part, but the next time you see a former college football player in a college town, ask him if he regrets his decision to pursue college athletics.
The next time you see a former baseball or hockey player, ask them if they would have been happy to have their program shut down because the football team went on strike and the university had to take money from one sport in order to get the money-making football program back out onto the field.
Dialogues and public pressure can get a lot done in today's politically-correct atmosphere, and it could do the same with regard to this topic. In fact, there are commissioners of major athletic conferences who are in favor of some of the changes mentioned above. The dialogue has already begun, and the public pressure grows by the year.
If you want that public sentiment to evaporate immediately, have a college football team or two go on strike. College football fans have immense passion and extremely short memories, so if you want to lose their support, then ruin just one of their Saturdays. Remember, some Alabama fans wanted Nick Saban fired after the loss in the Iron Bowl this past season. It only takes one bad day to lose a decade of support.
Unionizing would end college sports as we know them today, and yes, that is a bad thing. It would turn a collegial atmosphere into a contentious one, and it's difficult to get an education when you're constantly at war.
Currently, only private schools would be impacted, but those private schools are still part of the bloodstream of the NCAA and the state schools. If one part of the NCAA body gets infected, it will spread to all corners.
I like college sports the way they are, and I also have no problem admitting that some things could be improved. But unionizing teenagers who are given every single advantage that a university has to offer is a recipe for redundancy.
Players should definitely strive to achieve the changes that they desire, but if they do it via a union, the changes they are fighting for will be about as useful as a sailboat in a sandbox because college athletics as we know them today will become unrecognizable.
Given all of the good that comes from an athletic scholarship, is it worth the risk of changing that good forever just to fight for something that you'll never actually get to use?
Keep talking, keep teaching, keep campaigning, but do it in good faith.
After all, if college is so bad, why do athletes choose to stick around for four or five years?
All I'm asking is that the players appreciate what they have while they're trying to better their situations. Without proper appreciation it can be easy to take something for granted, and once something is taken for granted, it's much easier to gamble with.
And yes, selfishly, I worry about college athletics changing drastically. I just wish the Northwestern Wildcats were as worried about it as me.
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