College Football’s Toughest Play: Unionizing

Northwestern players filed to organize this week. The NCAA wants to kill collective bargaining for “student-athletes” in the crib before its lucrative business model get sacked.

As college presidents, chancellors and provosts continue their prolonged talk about the possibility of paying college athletes, a number of players on the Northwestern University football team have decided now is the time get more than scholarships for playing.

They want a union.

Ramogi Huma, a former linebacker for the UCLA and president of the National College Players Association, filed a petition to unionize with the National Labor Relations Board in Chicago this week.

This isn’t the first time Huma went after the National Collegiate Athletic Association or the NCAA. In 2006, Huma’s Collegiate Athletic Coalition (CAC), created in January 2001 by a group of student athletes at UCLA, filed a class action suit (with help from its organizing partner, the United Steelworkers) on behalf of some 20,000 student-athletes from 144 major college football and basketball schools. The suit was settled in 2008.

“This is about finally giving college athletes a seat at the table,” said Huma on Thursday night. “You want the players to have a say on their futures. Athletes deserve an equal voice when it comes to their physical, academic and financial protections.”

But can Huma and the Northwestern players really unionize?

Huma and the players think that it is possible. “It’s going to be a hard fight for the future and it is not about the Northwestern players, it is for college players everywhere.”

The catalyst for the unionization movement came after the NCAA said in a court filing that it does not have a “legal duty to protect student-athletes.” At the same time, the National Football League and former pro-football layers have been trying to hammer out a deal that would provide medical insurance for players who may have suffered a brain injury through repeated hits to the head.

The NCAA is not acknowledging a concussion problem with former players.

“When the NCAA ran away from the concussion issue that was the last straw” said Huma. “You want the players to have a say on their futures. Instead of having an athletic director or an administrator imposes their ideas. We would like them to sit down and talk to the players.”

Huma doesn’t think players getting paid will be on the agenda initially, he would like to see the NCAA work with players and treat them as partners.

Smith College economics professor and veteran sports-union negotiator Andrew Zimbalist thinks it will be a difficult task for the players to unionize but it is worth pursuing.

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“Because of the National Labor Relations Act and because of subsequent amendments to that, only private colleges can unionize under the NLRB,” said Zimbalist. “If you are a public college, you could unionize under state labor laws where the state permits it. Statutes will prevent this from spreading across the majority if it catches on like wildfire for the student athletes. It won’t be able to be wide spread.”

Too many big time football public colleges are located in right to work states like Texas and Alabama.

“The other issue of course that the Northwestern players will face, presumably if this goes forward and if they are successful and it is recognized by the NRLB, the NCAA will be able to cherry pick it and say, oh so you players at Northwestern don’t want to be amateurs anymore guess what. You can’t be in the NCAA and they get booted,” said Zimbalist. “So that’s a real thread here and a real concern. Therefore the union has to be really careful because the union can say we didn’t ask for a paycheck. What we are asking for is cost of attendance; we want $5,000 or whatever it is.

“We want catastrophic insurance that the NCAA pays for that we don’t have to pay for and we want better health care. So if they lay out a bunch of demands that are consistent with not being paid, consistent with the areas where the NCAA currently allows benefits, then they might be able to successfully contest being booted.

“So if they are smart about it, then it is something that can catch on and provide a lot of leverage and a lot of momentum to force the whole system to radically reform. So it is very interesting and lots of complications.”

Huma’s group has been trying to reverse the general public’s feeling that college athletes, especially football and basketball players, should shut their mouths and be happy to get a scholarship to play ball. On the National College Players Association website, the group explains that “the NCAA tries to convince us that we have little, if anything, to complain about because we are getting a ‘free ride’ through college. This is not true. Our scholarships are not free—we WORK for them.”

The people who run the NCAA disagree with Huma’s assessment. Long time Syracuse basketball coach Jim Boeheim bristled at the question of paying players at the annual meeting of New York State newspaper editors last October “That’s really the most idiotic suggestion of all time. I don’t believe players should be paid. I believe they are getting a tremendous opportunity.”

Boeheim is not alone. After all why should colleges and universities pay talent when there is no rule saying college athletes should be paid?

In October 2011, Saint Joseph’s University Athletic Director Don DiJulia told me that college presidents, provosts and chancellors were thinking of giving “student-athletes” a $2,000 annual salary. Athletic Directors seem to think $3,500 is a better stipend but for now the $2,000 figure seems to be right amount of money to spend on players for the Lords of the Ivy Towers.

Nothing ever came of the “thinking.”

The players get a scholarship and are considered “student-athletes” for worker’s compensation purposes. Schools really don’t want to deal with athletes who might be injured on the “job,” and fight against paying players because they are unable to work anywhere because of being hurt. That is why the term “student-athlete” was coined as it shields colleges and universities from paying worker’s compensation in the event of a severe injury suffered during a game.

The presidents, chancellors, provosts and other big-time college sports playing schools set the rules and give the athlete very few rights and always have the threat of the revoking of the scholarship for whatever reason (a coach doesn’t like him or he flunks courses) hanging over the athlete’s head like the Sword of Damocles.

Athletes are limited in their ability to earn money from jobs if they are on scholarship, so good luck finding other work while you’re on the disabled list.

Northwestern doesn’t believe the players are school employees and the school should not collective bargaining is not needed here.

The Northwestern players have gained support from the National Football League Players Association.

The NCAA is fighting to maintain its exploitative regime. The group’s Chief Legal Officer Donald Remy, who said in a statement “student-athletes are not employees within any definition of the National Labor Relations Act” and that there is no existing employment relationships between the “NCAA, its affiliated institutions or student-athletes.

“This union-backed attempt to turn student-athletes into employees undermines the purpose of college: an education. Student-athletes are not employees, and their participation in college sports is voluntary. We stand for all student-athletes, not just those the unions want to professionalize.”

Despite the NCAA pushback, Huma is of the opinion the Northwestern players will succeed because they “are on the right side of the argument.”

Huma said the push for the unionization of the Northwestern is just the beginning of what should be a long battle that will eventually include other athletes in other college sports. For now, the case will just involved the Northwestern players.

Like everything else in sports, this is a fight over money. The NCAA is in control and the athletes are told that when they sign what amounts to a contract with schools. The players are the star of the show but everyone makes money off of them and they might have an educational opportunity if they can balance sports and classes. Most can’t, and graduation rates for football and basketball players are poor as a result. The players are little more than meat on the hook. Now some of them at Northwestern want a cut of the billions of dollars that flow into the NCAA and the NCAA is not going to share without a fight.