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TELANDER: Is college football a labor of love or just plain labor?

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Updated: January 29, 2014 5:36PM



Kain Colter did what had to be done.

He was a pretty darned good quarterback for Northwestern these last four years, so versatile, rugged and team-oriented that even when he moved to running back or wide receiver he made a huge difference.

Now he’s making a difference that could change college sports forever.

With the apparent blessing of ‘‘almost 100 percent’’ of Northwestern football players, Colter led a downtown news conference Tuesday that in essence said, We’re not gonna take it anymore.

What won’t they take?

They’re not going to take having their rules, their behavior, their income, their health concerns — their very collegiate lives — dictated to them by the NCAA or conference officials or university employees who make their living off their backs, without, at the very least, having some say in those matters.

That’s the plan, anyway.

The adults won’t listen to the athletes, have never shown any inclination to do so, thus the players — all of whom, remember, are old enough to vote or join the military — will attempt to form a union to make their voices heard.

‘‘Right now, the NCAA is like a dictatorship,’’ Colter said. ‘‘No one represents us in negotiations. The only way things are going to change is if players have a union.”

Whether the players can actually do that is something the National Labor Relations Board and the courts will have to figure out. It may take years. Indeed, all NCAA brass, lawyers and university athletic directors are adamant in saying the players are not workers.

But a while back in this column, I gave evidence from some different-minded law students who wrote, in a peer-reviewed law bulletin, that what athletes in revenue-producing, entertainment-driven, big-time college football and basketball do is clearly work. Work is something you do as a service that is not voluntary and acknowledges at least some control by an employer, for which you get paid.

Is that a D-1 football player?

The NCAA says no. A thousand times, no.

‘‘Student-athletes are not employees, and their participation in college sports is voluntary,’’ said NCAA chief legal officer Donald Remy in a statement. (One must note here that the term ‘‘student-athletes’’ is a phrase contrived by the NCAA to steer critics away from the dreaded term ‘‘worker.’’)

Northwestern athletic director Jim Phillips, though a friend of every athlete at NU, agrees with the NCAA.

‘‘Northwestern believes that our student-athletes are not employees and collective bargaining is therefore not the appropriate method to address these concerns,’’ Phillips said in his statement.

But being the sweet, purple-bleeding fellow he is, Phillips added, ‘‘However, we agree that the health and academic issues being raised by our student-athletes and others are important ones that deserve further consideration.’’

Amen to that.

Forty-hour work weeks; 13 or even 14 games; summer schedules; bowl seasons that take away the limited time before spring ball; TV networks; coaches making millions; the risk of brain trauma: players were consulted about none of it. And at some point, the dangling of a scholarship as appeasement — the ironic offering of the one thing the player might have little time to pursue: education — is not enough.

In fact, the argument that players are not amateurs is a false one, since it is only the coin universities use as payment — scholarships — that differs from real cash.

Yet Colter claims getting a piece of the money pie is not his or his vaporous union’s dream. Simply sitting at the table with the NCAA graybeards who make decisions is.

Because he’s done with his eligibility, Colter can afford this effort. His teammates doing winter workouts at McGaw Hall? Well, coach Pat Fitzgerald must like this as much as pigeon poo on his flattop.

Yet it was going to be done. By someone.

‘‘I think [Colter and pals] are going to have a real uphill climb,’’ says attorney John Klages, a labor and employment expert at the Chicago law firm Quarles & Brady.

No doubt. Think of the issues. Is the math whiz who gets a full ride thus an employee? Do recruits join the union? Private universities, like NU, have different labor rules than state schools, like Illinois, so how does that work out?

‘‘Here’s where it gets to be a mess,’’ Klages said.

Yet Colter is trying to correct something he feels is wrong, outcome be damned.

Northwestern should be proud of him. Any school can crank out a knucklehead.

It takes a fine place to make a thinker.



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