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Universities will try to resist unionization, but it’s happening

Updated: March 19, 2014 6:28AM

A union for college football players might sound ­outrageous.

But there was a time when people scratched their heads at the thought of baseball players — and NFL and NBA players — needing a union. They were being paid a lot of money to play a sport, right? Why did they need a union?

Because in America, when a group wants to have a voice, they get together, and they get to have a voice — whether they set up McCormick Place exhibits, build cars, teach school or throw a ball around. You can debate whether professional sports unions wield too much power — but not their right to exist.

And now, puzzled and troubled by the thought of a college athletes’ union, opponents and skeptics are trying to make a distinction that college athletes are not employees.

They sign a contract. Their lives are controlled 24/7 by coaches, academic demands, practice time, strict behavior codes, medical standards. Even if the control is exercised benevolently to help them mature into successful adults, it’s pretty hard to make a case that ‘‘student-athletes’’ don’t deserve a voice.

They’re not employees? They need a union merely to gain the kind of rights employees enjoy. Employees, for example, can change jobs without sitting out a year.

While covering college athletics for decades, I’ve often wondered when and how a college players’ union would enter the scene.

Give a ton of credit to Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter for figuring out a way to take the first steps. Whether this effort is successful, or whether another one will be required down the road, or one after that — college athletes in revenue-producing sports seem destined to have a collective voice.

It’s ironic that this first move toward a union is taking place at Northwestern and in the Big Ten, a school and conference that do an outstanding job of attending to their student-athletes’ needs. If I were the parent of a football player, I’d have absolutely no hesitation in entrusting him to NU athletic director Jim Phillips and football coach Pat Fitzgerald.

It’s understandable that NU and the entire major-college establishment would resist a union movement. Whether they regard it that way or not, colleges have a pretty sweet deal at the moment.

Between football and men’s basketball, they have two cash cows that fund entire athletic departments.

They can, and will, argue that this is the necessary way to do things, that university athletics enhance the college experience for everyone involved. And a football or basketball scholarship not only is worth tens of thousands of dollars, they will say; it opens countless doors to a successful life, whether an athlete goes on to the NFL/NBA or not.

Which is all true and nice. But it also reminds me of a classic exchange between a player and a coach in the football movie ‘‘North Dallas Forty’’: ‘‘Every time I call it a game, you call it a business. And every time I call it a business, you call it a game.’’

Which is it? College football is a game that fans love to watch and talented young athletes love to play. But football and men’s basketball also are businesses that pay the bulk of athletic budgets that reportedly exceed $140 million at the biggest Big Ten schools.

No doubt, there are a vast number of athletic programs feeding from those massive troughs. And many schools that don’t enjoy the Big Ten’s financial advantages face a constant funding scramble.

Even though that’s not its main focus, a college athletes’ union would eventually put more pressure on the revenue side. And that will be difficult for athletic departments across the nation.

They need to prepare for it, though. Sooner than later, college sports seem on the verge of major upheaval. For good reason.

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