Its been a few weeks since the news originally broke of Northwestern football players being allowed to unionize, but what interests me are the arguments I heard this week coming from the sports media. We all know the system of college football and basketball has issues, many of which the NCAA are attempting to deal with. Yet the following made me take pause.
I heard speculation this week that the NCAA and Northwestern football are actually goading the Northwestern football players into focusing on themselves, on the individual athlete and pay for such athletes. That by making it a selfish fight, they lose all of their power. So yes, let them ‘win’ the fight for basic wages. In the end its the NCAA who is truly winning.
Simply brilliant, true or not. It does seem that the wave is crashing in this direction. The power of a union relies in numbers, strength in numbers. The way real change happens is if the football players at Northwestern band together with all college athletes, not just the ones at private universities and not just the football players. The fight is mainly about football and basketball, since they make the bulk of all money, yet it will ultimately come down to strength in numbers. So it seems the spin of the story, making it about football at Northwestern and other private (read rich) universities, has thrown things in the NCAA’s favor without anyone realizing it.
The other BIG thing going on here is the idea that these players want an actual wage. I don’t think they necessarily do! They want guaranteed scholarships, they want health coverage, and they want to know that if they do get hurt and can’t play sports, their degree is still waiting for them. They want to do endorsements and they don’t want to be exploited for autographs by the universities. Its the NCAA and the universities that has made it about a wage. Fighting for a wage makes them look greedy and deflects away from the real issues. Its classic distraction and frankly, I’m disappointed.
So what’s my point? I want to see the Northwestern football players formally outline a list of changes to college athletics that work to protect the interests of the athlete. Sit down with a big name mediator and address things head on. I don’t think anyone wants to blow up the system to its detriment, and everyone agrees change is required. For the athletes, its not simply about money. They are playing a sport, risking injury, and are getting an education. For the NCAA is mostly about money. Someone should remind them its also about people, students attending college.
I’ve gone back and forth on this issue. Obviously college athletes are getting screwed here with the system that is in place. Something needs to change. A good point that has been made is that just because unionization may cause drastic changes and will bring up questions we don’t currently have the answers to doesn’t mean it’s a bad idea.
Detractors of the idea, along with making it about player salaries, as you mentioned, will mention some basic question like, “well can a player be fired now that he’s an employee?” And since we don’t have a good response yet, they immediately throw out the idea entirely. This is going to be a long and arduous process to fix NCAA sports. There will be hundreds such questions that we won’t know the answers to until they are answered.
With that said, I have some questions that you probably don’t have an answer to!
Unionization seems like a great idea if it will give athletes the things you outlined: guaranteed scholarships, health care during play and (more importantly) after graduation, etc. But I get hung up on the idea of this being centered around football and basketball. There are way more student athletes around the country who play something other than football and basketball. However, in the vast majority of cases, those other athletes’ sports don’t make any money for the university. In fact, they often lose money, and the program is supported by the profits of the athletic department…from football and basketball.
I guess my question is, what are we aiming for here? If it’s fair treatment for student athletes, you can’t then offer across-the-board changes to sports that are inherently not even. Why should a field hockey player get anything when she brings in nothing as far as financial profits are concerned? But on the other hand, doesn’t she also fit the mold of an athlete who participates in sport functions 40+ hours a week and is thus an employee of the school as the court ruling determined?