No university president, athletic director, or coach reacted positively when football players at Northwestern University attempt to join a union. Now we know that they got the message. Huffington Post reports that officials in the NCAA will consider loosening the rules on paying athletes. The proposal would not affect all schools, only the largest conferences. It would also only apply to high profile men’s sports, such as football and basketball. Compensation would not be direct pay, but increased cost of living stipends and insurance policies. No one knows if these measures will be accepted. I do know this: If the players at Northwestern had not been bold enough to consider forming a union, the NCAA and its member schools would have never have considered paying athletes. Workers in other industries need to take note.
Pat Fitzgerald is a great football coach. He also seems to be a good man who wants to teach his players values. However, in coming out against his players joining a union, he is acting in a way that raises some hard questions that the coach does not answer. According to the players, their goal is to improve health care and academic opportunities, not salary. Coaches like Fitzgerald often make more than a million dollars a year. Fitzgerald said that unionizing is not in the players’ “best interest” and that all issues could be worked out through “communication” and “trust.”
The problem with this approach is that it leaves the individual player at the mercy of two powerful institutions: the university that grants his/her scholarship and the NCAA. It’s easy for the employer or the school to say, “Trust me. I’m doing what’s in your best interest.” According the Collegiate Athletes Players Association (CAPA), players have been punished by the NCAA for accepting food. Some universities have done little to help players who suffered injuries that will affect them for the rest of their lives. According an article in Huffington Post, Northwestern recently opened a $225 million athletic facility. According to USA Today, Coach Fitzgerald’s annual compensation is $2.2 million. College sports generates big money. College sports has a union to protect its interest: the NCAA, which generates $433 million a year in revenue just by selling rights.
In this system, shouldn’t the players be allowed to have a unified voice that lets them protect their interest? Then again, most workers in America today have no protection. Maybe the young men on Northwestern’s football team will set a good example for the country. Until working people find a way to support each other, we will all be at the mercy of a system based on “trust.”
PS: In 2011, South Park put much of this debate in a hilarious perspective, especially the definition of student-athlete.
Apparently, college football players do. Think Progress reports that the National College Players Association has filed a petition on behalf of football players from Northwestern University to be recognized as members of a union. This effort is being support by the United Steelworkers Union.
I’ve long believed that college athletes who generate millions of dollars for their universities deserve some kind of compensation, and I have no problem with their organizing. However, it says a lot about our country when this story gets so much attention while the ongoing effort of low wage workers at Walmart and similar companies is almost ignored. Public sectors unions are under fire at the Supreme Court, again, with little or no coverage.
Until working people recognize that we are all in this together, it will be easy for the super rich and their lackeys in politics and the media to play games of divide and conquer. I hope low wage workers stand with college athletes in their struggle for union right. And I hope college athletes do the same for the people who serve them at fast food restaurants and big box retail stores. On this day that has seen the passing of the great Peter Seeger, a man who loved working people, we need to all stand together and support unions.