October 24, 2014
What was it Ronald Reagan said in that old movie about college football?
“Win one for the Gipper!”
Yeah, that was it. Stirring line.
And it sure beat what we fear is coming next:
“Win one for College Athletes Players Association Local 1!”
But that’s where we’re headed, sports fans, if a ruling on Wednesday that grants Northwestern scholarship football players the right to form a union is upheld on appeal.
Strictly amateur college athletics, beginning with football at Northwestern but unlikely to end there, threatens to go the way of those thin leather helmets George Gipp used to wear. Football huddles will look like Teamster meetings.
And who is to blame?
Not the student athletes who, truth be told, have been exploited for economic gain too often and too long.
Blame the schools. Blame the amateur athletics money machine. Blame the National Collegiate Athletic Association.
The best hope of heading off this absurd development — because really, folks, we don’t want trade unions in college locker rooms — is for Northwestern and the NCAA to reform their ways. Bring back the true spirit and practice of amateur athletics, putting far more emphasis on “student” in “student athlete.”
If that means TV revenues take a hit, too bad.
The irony is that Northwestern University is arguably among the lesser offenders in big-time college football when it comes to demanding long hours on the field and in the gym at the expense of academics. But Peter Sung Ohr, regional director of the National Labor Relations Board, ruled Wednesday that Northwestern scholarship players are paid employees of the school and therefore entitled to a union election.
What do the players looking to unionize want?
Among other demands, they want financial coverage for sports-related medical expenses after their playing days are over — just as NFL players get. They want concussion experts assigned to every game. They want the creation of an education trust fund to help former players graduate.
Because — no surprise here — a lot of players bust out, lose their scholarships and never graduate.
In his written decision, Ohr is scathing in his description of how the football program at Northwestern dominates and controls the lives of scholarship players, making it exceedingly hard for them to enroll in the best classes, attend class regularly, study sufficiently and graduate with that vaunted Northwestern education. And Ohr snorts at Northwestern’s contention that the character-building aspects of football make participation part of the “overall educational experience.”
Football at Northwestern, he writes, is a real job, and a full-time one at that, with scholarships as the compensation.
“During this time, the players devote 40 to 50 hours per week to football-related activities, including travel to and from their scheduled games,” Ohr writes about the fall football season. “It cannot be said that they are ‘primarily students’ who ‘spend only a limited number of hours performing their athletic duties.’ ”
Northwestern will appeal the ruling before the full NLRB in Washington, and we wish the university well. We can’t predict yet how this ruling would play out at other colleges and universities — whether, for example, public universities would be affected at all — but we’d much prefer to see amateur sports stay amateur. But as part of their effort to keep unions out of the lockerroom, Northwestern and the NCAA would be wise to take much of what Ohr asserts to heart — and change their ways.
Appeal Ohr’s ruling, by all means, but also give the full board less reason to uphold the ruling.