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Unionize the NCAA



For the first time in the history of college sports, athletes are asking to be represented by a labor union, taking formal steps on Tuesday to begin the process of being recognized as employees, ESPN’s “Outside The Lines” has learned.

Ramogi Huma, president of the National College Players Association, filed a petition in Chicago on behalf of football players at Northwestern University, submitting the form at the regional office of the National Labor Relations Board.

Backed by the United Steelworkers union, Huma also filed union cards signed by an undisclosed number of Northwestern players with the NLRB — the federal statutory body that recognizes groups that seek collective bargaining rights.

“This is about finally giving college athletes a seat at the table,” said Huma, a former UCLA linebacker, who created the NCPA as an advocacy group in 2001. “Athletes deserve an equal voice when it comes to their physical, academic and financial protections.”

Huma told “Outside The Lines” that the move to unionize players at Northwestern started with quarterback Kain Colter, who reached out to him last spring and asked for help in giving athletes representation in their effort to improve the conditions under which they play NCAA sports. Colter became a leading voice in regular NCPA-organized conference calls among players from around the country.

Now this is a story worth following. Given the difficulty graduate student unions have had in getting universities to admit they are employees, I think this is going to be an even harder struggle for athletes since they aren’t even paid, but I wish them the best of luck.

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  • I’m so behind this, I could tattoo its ass.

    • Manju

      well, i’m so behind this that i have to step back in order to tattoo its ass.

      • TribalistMeathead

        If I was closer to either one of you, I’d be behind you.

  • Orpho

    Good luck to them. It will be a hell of a slog.

    Graduate students have perhaps between a few thousand and ten thousand dollars on the line in unionization, a piece. Granted, it means the difference for them between poverty and minimum wage, or between minimum wage and living wage, but there it is.

    NCAA is a billion dollar industry, and the athletes are (probably) entitled to more than grad students. It’ll certainly be interesting.

    • FridayNext

      Don’t forget health insurance. The biggest victory for my grad union was getting health insurance. That was pre-ACA, but it meant I could attend grad school.

      • Fake Irishman

        Whenever I talked fellow grad students/employees about union issues, the zero-premium health insurance was the one thing that was always non-negotiable for them.

  • TT

    I think one thing in the major D1 football and basketball players’ favor is that, unlike graduate student unions, they can point to the hundreds of millions of dollars (at least) per year that major corporations pay to broadcast the fruits of their labor on radio, television, and the internet, and that they are the only people in the entire scheme who don’t see a penny of that money.

    • GoDeep

      Hmmm, I think there’s a qualitative difference b/tn the apprenticeship model of grad students & playing your chosen sport for your chosen school.

      You can make a good case that teaching classes and grading papers is not an intrinsic part of learning. But how is playing football not an intrinsic part of a football scholarship???

  • I think this is going to be an even harder struggle for athletes since they aren’t even paid, but I wish them the best of luck.

    True, which makes the way they’re used even more despicable. They don’t just make tons of money for the university, they help keep the lights on in the surrounding city.

    But don’t you think a team threatening to strike a couple of weeks before homecoming would be seen as a serious threat?

    • If that actually happened, it would be amazing.

      • Stan Gable

        Looks like they have one national TV game next year – at Notre Dame on Nov 15th. I assume that you either go after that game or the Northern Illinois game at the start of the year…

        • mjtp

          That would have to be one of the great organizing coups in world history, I would think. Convincing 50 or more undereducated 19-21 year-olds to forego a chance to do what they love on national tv, and to risk their scholarships and future employment prospects, for the theoretical prospect of benefits that would almost certainly not materialize until long after their own eligibility is expired, would be something to behold.

          A major advantage the colleges have over this labor force is the time limits involved. By the time any individual player may have developed a true awareness of how badly they’re getting screwed, a whole new crop of recruits has replaced him.

          • Fake Irishman

            This is another issue with grad employees as well. We turn over pretty quickly.

          • esc

            My experience at Northwestern was that there was less expectation of getting into the NFL and more of a “I’m using my athletic ability to get in the door at the most prestigious school that will have me,” and therefore the players there were smarter than many of their Big 10 competition. Google tells me that NU has the highest graduation rate for football players in the nation.

            So maybe it’s the most likely place for this kind of thing to work out.

            • West of the Cascades

              And also, perhaps, a place where the administration might at least tacitly support the effort, or at least not pull the kind of retribution that will happen at [insert name of SEC school here] as this spreads. NU is my alma mater for grad school and has been my favorite college team since 1990, and this just makes me thrilled.

        • Royko

          I think there’s very little chance that Northwestern players would strike alone. I think this action is meant as a rallying cry for college players, and to show whether it can be done. From there, the movement will spread or else falter.

    • wjts

      But don’t you think a team threatening to strike a couple of weeks before homecoming would be seen as a serious threat?

      I hope it happens, and I hope it destroys Division I football/basketball. I don’t believe either event will come to pass, though.

      • Why would they do anything to destroy the sport?

        Or do you mean the big very exploitative unfunny joke that these programs have become?

        (Also, I see TT got the point in about the All mighty $$ before me.)

        • wjts

          My imagined best-case scenario is that university administrations, in an act of remarkably short-sighted pique, decide that they would rather forgo D1 football and basketball all together rather than parcel out any of the revenues to the student athletes. The public supports the administrators’ brave stand against greedy students whose unreasonable demands forced the universities to destroy college athletics in order to save it. And also, I get a pony.

          • Lee Rudolph

            Hey, you might as well make that a polo pony, while you’re at it—support one of the true remaining amateur sports!

            • I’m pretty sure the ponies are professionals.

              • efgoldman

                I’m pretty sure the ponies are professionals.

                Their contract requires steel-cut oats and organic carrots.

    • Monday Night Frotteur

      But don’t you think a team threatening to strike a couple of weeks before homecoming would be seen as a serious threat?

      Maybe. I think that four teams threatening to strike on the eve of the Final Four, or on the even of the newly expanded football playoff, would be much more effective and would get the players most of what they wanted.

      • Both would work. I’m going solely on what I’ve seen in two Big Sports towns but any interruption of sports would have the hotel and restaurant owners screaming.

      • GoDeep

        College athletes get enormous respect now from fans. I think the moment they strike fans would ask why players who are already getting scholarships worth tens of thousands of dollars feel like they should get salaries on top of that.

        I think there’s a reasonable middle ground here–health and disability insurance for players, some slackening of NCAA rules on getting gifts from boosters–but I don’t think having the NCAA b/cm a Jr NFL best serves the public interest.

        • Monday Night Frotteur

          There’s no “middle ground.” There should be no safe harbour for anti-labor employer cartels. Individual Universities should have to bid against each other for talent like everybody else, or they should have to engage in sport-specific collective bargaining. Either way, a gargantuan amount of resources that currently go to overstuffed rent-seeking administrators and coaches will go to players.

          fans would as why players who are already getting scholarships worth tens of thousands of dollars feel like they should get salaries on top of that

          Because that’s what the market will bear. As for public good will, the MLBPA was much more aggressive than the NFLPA, and at least in 81 and 94, was loathed about as much as a public institution could be loathed. Didn’t matter. Hasn’t affected public subsidies for MLB teams/stadia, and obviously going on the offensive allowed the MLBPA to win a system that the NFLPA and NBPA can only dream of. That “enormous respect” isn’t worth shit.

          • Scott P.

            Are student athletes employees? They don’t get paid, do not depend on their play for their living, can stop at any time. They are essentially volunteers.

            Now, I don’t mean to suggest that the NCAA is all sunshine and light or that one can’t exploit a volunteer, or even that volunteers shouldn’t organize to ensure they are treated fairly, but they aren’t employees.

            • Grumpy

              What you’ve said is deeply stupid.

              • GoDeep

                In what sense of the word are they employees? They’re students playing a sport. Same as across thousands of high schools in this country. Are HS players employees too? I suppose the marching band & cheerleaders are employees too.

                • DrS

                  I dunno, in the sense that someone is making massive profits from their labor?

                  Sure, that may not neatly accrue to individual programs, but that doesn’t mean that there is not an exploitation of their labor happening.

                • Left_Wing_Fox

                  You realize that’s the same argument against interns and teaching assistants getting benefits, don’t you? Their labour adds profit, in this case, in the form of viewer revenue.

                  Frankly, I have no problem with cheerleaders and marching bands during the games being employees as well, especially if their attendance is mandatory and not voluntary.

                  If your marching band, team or cheer squad need to sell candy bars to perform, rather than making profit from the performance, that’s not exactly a profit generating exercise.

                • witless chum

                  Scholarship athletes are being paid in a scholarship and stipend in return for playing a sport. If they quit the team, they lose their scholarship. I think that qualifies as pay under any honest definition of the word.

            • Monday Night Frotteur

              They’re compensated, but the compensation is capped at the level of a GIA scholarship. I suspect that the ultimate determinations by federal courts, the NLRB and state courts will be split down political lines. Progressive courts and a progressive NLRB will hold that they meet the test for employees, reactionaries won’t. Might not matter if O’Bannon and subsequent antitrust litigation goes the players’ way. The universities will be begging for collective bargaining.

            • JL

              How do their scholarships not constitute getting paid?

              • efgoldman

                Scholarship athletes are being paid in a scholarship and stipend in return for playing a sport. If they quit the team, they lose their scholarship. I think that qualifies as pay under any honest definition of the word

                In most major hoops and football program, the scholarships are for a year at a time, renewable pretty much at the discretion of the coach. Basic protection would suggest that the scholarship be for at least four years, to compete the “free” education. Just like injured pro players can be cut, injured college players can have their scholarships cancelled. What do they do then?
                There are a zillion stories of coaches “running off” players they don’t want, for whatever reason.

      • slavdude

        I think that four teams threatening to strike on the eve of the Final Four, or on the even of the newly expanded football playoff, would be much more effective and would get the players most of what they wanted.

        Idakno. Color me skeptical. The NCAA/broadcasters would probably just take the teams that lost to the striking teams and put them in the big games.

    • GoDeep

      If the reports I’ve read on this blog are true most D1 football programs are in the red, and already being subsidized by taxpayers. Requiring salaries for the players would only increase subsidies. How is that in the public interest?

      I can see how health & disability insurance for these players is in the public interest, but outside of that I think we already subsidize things enough, no?

      • JustRuss

        I’m not sure that’s true. Most D1 athletic programs are in the red, but football, and sometimes basketball, is the cash cow that carries the other programs. Still, if players gets paid, that means less money to fund other sports, so yes, this raises lots of issues.

        • Brandon

          I think that’s an important thing to consider, but as a defense of not paying the athletes while still paying administration and coaches millions upon millions of dollars and building huge sports megaplexes, it falls flat.

          • GoDeep

            Listen I’m not going to support million dollar salaries to coaches, but I don’t think throwing the baby out with the bath water makes a lick of sense. If D1 football & basketball to indeed support other programs, then whatever we do here has ENORMOUS Title IX implications.

            If football players got paid, how many women’s volleyball players do you think would still be playing? Hell, if football players got paid, under Title IX it might be that all athletes have to get paid, and then we’re talking abt an already large subsidy for athletics becoming a GINORMOUS subsidy to athletics.

            I’m all for reducing coaching/administrator salaries but not at this cost.

            • Monday Night Frotteur

              What is the “baby,” rank exploitation of revenue athletes? That’s a bad baby.

              If you want “middle ground,” here it is; universities continue to cap direct compensation at the GIA scholarship level, but no longer prohibit athletes from obtaining “outside” income from endorsements, boosters, or whatever other sources they can find. Revenue athletes get much more of their market value, the silly “student-athlete” charade continues, and there are no title IX problems. That’s your middle ground.

              • The “baby” here are thousands of young men whose talent on the football field wouldn’t let them even sniff a chance at an invite to an NFL training camp as camp fodder that are being given the opportunity to go school and have it fully paid for.

                For the majority of D1 football players, the NCAA is a great deal. While it certainly needs fixing, I’m a little disturbed by the number of people who want to blow it up entirely.

            • witless chum

              If you believe the NW players, it’s not about being paid, it’s about the nebulous idea of having a voice.

    • Orpho

      It wasn’t technically a strike, but something like that did happen just this year at Grambling, where football players protested their poor conditions and refused to play in a big game: http://espn.go.com/college-football/story/_/id/9845085/grambling-state-tigers-game-jackson-state-tigers-canceled-players-refuse-board-buses

  • ChrisS

    Good for them. It pisses me off to no end that college presidents, ADs, coaches, and various and sundry hangers on are all profiting by pimping out “amateur” athletes who had to fight to get cream cheese on a bagel without running afoul of NCAA restrictions.

    That said, I’d hate to open a Pandora’s box where student athletes for revenue sports become a very distinctive upper class at colleges staying at their gated (or Friends of Coal) Athlete Housing. However, without the option (like baseball players) to forgo college athletics and head straight to the pros, I do have some sympathy for them. But the revenue students generally already have and had issues with the general student population. From experience, I’ve seen a very high level college QB (who is now a candidate for the NFL HOF) complain bitterly when his completed assignments were stolen by classmates because they had his signature on them.

  • Peterr

    I don’t suppose that the enormous sums spent on coaching salaries will hurt the cause of the athletes:

    Last year, both Meyer and Michigan’s Brady Hoke made more than $4 million, while Iowa’s Kirk Ferentz made just less ($3.985 million), according to USA Today. Franklin’s deal at Penn State includes an annual salary of $4.25 million. Terms of Dantonio’s new contract at Michigan State have yet to be announced, but it will put Dantonio, previously among the lowest-paid Big Ten coaches ($1.9 million), in the top salary tier. His staff also will receive nice pay bumps.

    “I don’t think we’ve been woefully behind,” [Ohio State AD Gene] Smith said of the Big Ten. “We were not the first ones to drive the salaries up, but we weren’t far behind in responding. Whenever we can attract someone who is really talented, we pay them.”

    Quite a contrast, don’t you think, with their attitude toward athletes.

    (Embedded links at the original.)

    • Yes, those salaries are absurd and obscene.

      I believe Franklin’s pay is higher than PSU’s president.

      • West of the Cascades

        And that worked so well last time.

  • Joe Bob

    Based on the attempted (and failed) graduate student unionization efforts I have witnessed I could actually see the athletes having an easier go at it.

    In the grad student union efforts I have seen the primary pitfall was they were not really one group with common interests. Teaching assistants with loads of undergrad students had some legitimate claims to exploitation. On the other hand, the paid work of research assistants was more directly related to their progress on the their degree, and those people wanted nothing to do with the union.

    • Fake Irishman

      In my experience, it depended on the RA. Most international RAs (who tended to get mistreated much more) couldn’t sign the card fast enough. Ditto with many women. Some of the white guys… not so much.

      • wjts

        Anecdotally, a friend who was a PhD student in Physics at Yale in the early-to-mid 2000 said that the attitude towards a union in his department ranged from indifference to hostility regardless of nationality or gender. In my experience, math/hard science/engineering students are more likely to be opposed to unionization than those in the humanities and social sciences.

        • JBL

          Not math, which is generally on the TA model (like the humanities but unlike lab sciences). Chemistry and engineering are particularly terrible.

          • (the other) Davis

            Not math, which is generally on the TA model (like the humanities but unlike lab sciences).

            Indeed. There was nearly unanimous support for unionization–from both grad students and from professors–in my math department.

        • overly caffeinated grad student

          This was the case at my university in our previous attempts to unionize; the social sciences/humanities were much more receptive than the sciences/engineering departments. Now that our health insurance is under attack for the second year in a row, the push towards the card drive can’t come soon enough.

        • Manny Kant

          Certainly grad students in the sciences were less likely to support unionization, but my experience at Penn about a decade ago was that even there things weren’t absolutely dire in terms of willingness to sign cards or vote for unionization. At any rate, what really happened to those drives is that the NLRB ruled that we didn’t count as employees, so the universities had no reason to negotiate. Aside from a few militants, nobody – either humanities or sciences – was really willing to take the more extreme steps to get recognition without NLRB protections – and, of course, there’s no guarantee at all that a full on strike would have actually caused the university to cave.

      • Linnaeus

        It often depends on the RA and also can depend on the individual department. I was involved with two union drives at two universities and some science departments, e.g., physics, tended to be receptive while others, e.g., chemistry, were much less so. The less receptive departments often had an anti-union atmosphere created by the department chair and senior faculty.

        • solidcitizen

          This was the experience in my grad union as well. Physics had strong union membership, but Bio and Chem were mixed.

  • efgoldman

    Aren’t most of the biggest traditional football powers in right-to-work sates? I see a potentially huge free riding problem, if this gets anywhere, which it probably won’t.

    • Royko

      And the NRLA doesn’t apply to public universities. Yeah, getting a player’s union is not going to be simple.

      But I still think it’ll happen eventually. The pot of money has just gotten too obscene to pretend there’s no exploitation.

      • C.S.

        And the NRLA doesn’t apply to public universities.

        Here’s some pretty good (not always great, but pretty good) football schools that aren’t public universities:

        Notre Dame
        University of Miami
        Wake Forest
        Duke (this year, anyway)

        Forget about paying players — what about just being able to guarantee their scholarships? Which of the schools on this list wouldn’t want to guarantee scholarships as a way to better compete in the recruiting game against Alabama, Florida, Florida State, Texas, or wherever? If the NLRA doesn’t apply to public universities, fine. Let them go on offering at-will scholarships to potential recruits, and see how long they remain competitive.

        Assuming, of course, that this goes anywhere. And a pony.

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    • West of the Cascades

      Pat Fitzgerald, NU head coach, supports his players on this. Magnificent. How many other coaches will have that courage out of the gate?

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