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Even if NU football players vote no on union, change has begun

Former Northwestern University football quarterback KaColter right Ramogi Humfounder President National College Players Associatileft Tim Waters Political Director United Steel

Former Northwestern University football quarterback Kain Colter, right, Ramogi Huma, founder and President of the National College Players Association left, and Tim Waters, Political Director of the United Steel Workers, arrive on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, April, 2, 2014. Members of a group seeking to unionize college athletes are looking for allies on Capitol Hill as they brace for an appeal of a ruling that said full scholarship athletes at Northwestern University are employees who have the right to form a union. Colter _ the face of a movement to give college athletes the right to unionize _ and Ramogi Huma, the founder and president of the National College Players Association, scheduled meetings Wednesday with lawmakers. (AP Photo/Lauren Victoria Burke)

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Updated: April 6, 2014 10:20PM

Regardless of how Northwestern football players vote April 25 — whether they decide to form a union or not — the labor movement started by former Wildcats quarterback Kain Colter isn’t going away and will change college sports forever.

I’ll be writing about this for a long time, explaining the complexities of the unfairness of revenue-producing, entertainment-driven, TV-mad college football and how it got to this point. For now, though, here are some key points to remember:

1. This isn’t political. The idea to unionize isn’t a left-wing radicalization effort that seeks to ruin peace and tradition. Maybe aligning with the United Steelworkers isn’t the most savory way to get sympathy and approval, but what else were Colter and others in the College Athletes Players Association to do? Ask the Koch brothers for some of their right-wing billions? The NCAA? Fans who only want players to shut up and play?

2. When I wrote The Hundred Yard Lie: The Corruption of College Football and What We Can Do to Stop It a quarter-century ago, stating exactly what the problems were in ‘‘amateur,’’ big-money football, conservative pundit George Will stated: ‘‘We ought to just shut down college football for a year and read this book.’’

Within that book are detailed all the abuses that occur today, from player-injury issues to coaches richer than God. I don’t know Colter personally, but what he is protesting against isn’t new. The issues go back 100 years.

3. Critics shout that athletes in glamorous major-college football are lucky beyond belief. I had to pay for my college education. My kids had to pay for theirs. How ungrateful are these kids who get free educations?

OK, let’s ask how many concussions you or your children suffered, how many times you/they worked 50 hours a week during school, how much rare talent you/they had.

Sure, you’d take that ‘‘free’’ football scholarship. Trouble is, you aren’t 18 years old, 6-6, 310 pounds, agile and mean. Or 6-1, 200 pounds with soft hands, a 4.4-second time in the
40-yard dash and the will to run across the middle.

This same specious argument is used by people who want to play center field in the majors or lead guitar in a rock band. Do it if you can. But you can’t.

4. The NCAA or any conscience-driven group of coaches and athletic directors could have stopped this nonsense years ago. They could have dropped the ludicrous concept of amateurism in money-making football and allowed players to have a say in what goes on and in how they can participate in the huge dollars produced through their labor.

How huge? Incredibly huge. The NCAA takes in $11 billion annually, which is more than the NBA and Major League Baseball and equal to the mighty NFL.

And this is a not-for-profit, tax-free organization that has 50 football coaches who made more than
$2 million in 2013.

5. America is a capitalist country with meritocracy as one of its core values. That is, if you have skill and desire, you won’t be limited in your pursuit of excellence and financial reward by things such as race, gender, age or clout.

By using free labor and never allowing that free labor to have a voice in how it is rewarded or used, the NCAA has treated college football players more like slaves than free adult males who can vote and go to war and die for this country.

6. Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald has advised his players not to vote for the union. No, Fitz can’t penalize or threaten any players for the way they vote. Indeed, he’s not even supposed to know how anyone votes.

But a head coach knows everything. And he controls what is most important to any player: playing time. You think you want to mess with the man who controls your self-worth? Your destiny?

7. The Chicago office of the National Labor Relations Board determined what Northwestern players do is work. Remember that. It is work, this football stuff.

Can you remember that?

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