Go U, N…ion?
When Northwestern football news competes with Super Bowl media day and the President’s State of the Union address you know it is going to be a crazy day. My initial reaction to yesterday’s ESPN Outside the Lines Report that Northwestern football players were attempting to unionize wasn’t one of choosing sides. I was internally speculating about just how big this was going to be. As the guy who runs a Northwestern fan blog I soon realized many people would be turning to this site to get information, perspective and commentary. I spent yesterday simply trying to cobble together the information as best I could.
Today, I try to make sense of it. The initial and incorrect knee-jerk assumption many people made when the news broke from the ESPN OTL report, was that this was Northwestern players attempting to make a pay-for-play issue. It is not. Kain Colter, the spokesperson for College Athletes Players Association was very clear about that. Colter told Teddy Greenstein of the Chicago Tribune, ““A lot of people will think this is all about money; it’s not,” Colter said “We’re asking for a seat at the table to get our voice heard.”
Let’s get some of the basics and background covered before I dive in to my perspective.
- As ESPN’s Outside the Lines first reported yesterday, “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.”
- Kain Colter and at least 27 scholarship members of the Northwestern football team signed labor cards, and as members of the College Athletics Player Association (CAPA) are seeking to unionize on the basis they are employees based on their scholarship compensation. I invite you to check out this link of the FAQs for CAPA which explains why they are choosing this path along with the intent of CAPA.
- There are two different entities, both run by Ramogi Huma. Huma launched and runs the advocacy organization known as the National College Players Association. He is also the founder and president of CAPA.
- CAPA’s goals, from their website include the following:
- CAPA will ultimately allow players to collectively bargain for comprehensive reform such as:
- Guaranteed coverage for sports-related medical expenses for current and former players.
- Minimizing the risk of sports-related traumatic brain injury. Reduce contact in practices like the NFL and Pop Warner have done, place independent concussion experts on the sidelines, and establish uniform return to play protocols.
- Improving graduation rates. Establish an educational trust fund to help former players complete their degree and reward those who graduate on time.
- Consistent with evolving NCAA regulations or future legal mandates, increasing athletic scholarships and allowing players to receive compensation for commercial sponsorships.
- Securing due process rights. Players should not be punished simply because they are accused of a rule violation, and any punishments levied should be consistent across campuses
Of all of the posts and articles I read yesterday, the one that jumped out to me as the most comprehensive and fair approach was this feature by SB Nation’s Jason Kirk, “No, college football players aren’t unionizing for pay-for-play“. I highly recommend reading this before moving on in this post.
So, what is my take on this? Well, if the comments section of the previous post is any indication, it is clear that this topic is a polarizing one. The mere mention of the word “union” conjures up emotional responses from people. On one side of the spectrum you have the “you’re getting a $60K per year education for playing football and no one forced you to take it, so shut up and play.” On the other side of the spectrum you have “there are billions of dollars being made off the backs of these kids, their names and likeness are being used and players should be paid.” Well, on this issue, many are in the middle. ‘Once again, though, yesterday’s union attempt effort isn’t about pay-for-play, but that was part of the brilliance in the approach.
Personally, I think Northwestern has reserved its place on the historical timeline of amateur athletics with yesterday’s news. It’s impossible for me to be objective on this as a Northwestern alum and fan. On one hand, I applaud Kain Colter, in particular, for being a leader of something that he strongly believes in and mobilizing a movement that has instantly forced the hands of the powers that be in collegiate athletics to step forward and have a national dialogue. On the other hand, I don’t think unionizing is the way to go about it.
This is a brilliant public relations play, though. You can debate the timing (would it have been even more effective next Tuesday AFTER the Super Bowl?), but the news coverage results would suggest it worked like a charm. Anytime you can spark national media to use a headline that includes “for the first time in the history of…” you get people to lean forward. I’ve had to take my personal opinion of unions out of the mix to try and assess this situation. The association with the US Steelworkers Union is clearly a “we mean business” message.
I don’t pretend to be a labor law expert. Hell, I’m not even a novice. I’ve read some background information on this via Kevin Trahan at Inside Northwestern. Personally, the most intriguing angle I heard was from a business colleague with a strong finance background who went down the road of “if you take the stance that the players are claiming they are employees, then the scholarship is compensation and you open the door up for a five-figure tax for the athletes to pay. But, the bigger picture on this was that Kain Colter, the same Wildcat player who made waves with his “All Players United” marking on his wristband back in September, pulled this off rather spectacularly.
Kain’s goal was to have a voice at the table. I’d say that voice has now been given a national megaphone. I’ve just admired the way this went down as much as anything. The sex appeal of this story is undeniable. The question of amateurism in college football has been a headline-grabbing topic for several years now. The Penn State sex abuse scandal was a turning point in the conversation. Add the ongoing concussion issues that are threatening the sport and then most recently the North Carolina fake classes scandal and you had a pretty good backdrop for this story to stick. Big time. CAPA’s goals? As Jason Kirk broke down, point by point, it is hard to argue with any one of them. Therein lies the brilliance of this approach. There was no mention of pay-for-play. The act of unionizing is headline grabbing, the lists of goals is one that most of us would agree to (who doesn’t want players protected?) and yet, it will still bring the pay-for-play conversation to the forefront. It is important to note that CAPA went out if its way to say this has nothing to do with how NU treated the ‘Cats players:
Q: Are the Northwestern players complaining about mistreatment by their university?
A: No. These players are unhappy with NCAA policies that affect their lives as Northwestern athletes – CAPA website FAQs
I had a post set to go yesterday morning that included the salary arms race among B1G coaches. With James Franklin now over $4million per year at Penn State, there are at least four coaches in the B1G at or above that annual salary. What football coach is going to step up and say they disagree with the goals of the players? Athletic Directors make very good salaries and also, for the most part, genuinely care about the protection of players. What AD is going to step up and say “I disagree with these goals?”.
Jim Phillips took the logical (and in my opinion, correct) approach in his release yesterday. It included four distinct messages #1)NU teaches leadership and kudos to Kain for showing leadership, 2)please note that Kain and the players specifically noted that NU has treated them the right way at every turn and 3)he disagrees with the tactic of unionizing as the best way for the NU players to achieve their goals 4)he hears the message, voice at table granted. Here is his actual statement:
“We love and are proud of our students. Northwestern teaches them to be leaders and independent thinkers who will make a positive impact on their communities, the nation and the world. Today’s action demonstrates that they are doing so.
Northwestern University always has been, and continues to be, committed to the health, safety and academic success of all of its students, including its student-athletes. The concerns regarding the long-term health impacts of playing intercollegiate sports, providing academic support and opportunities for student-athletes are being discussed currently at the national level, and we agree that they should have a prominent voice in those discussions.
We are pleased to note that the Northwestern students involved in this effort emphasized that they are not unhappy with the University, the football program or their treatment here, but are raising the concerns because of the importance of these issues nationally.
Northwestern believes that our student-athletes are not employees and collective bargaining is therefore not the appropriate method to address these concerns. However, we agree that the health and academic issues being raised by our student-athletes and others are important ones that deserve further consideration.” – Jim Phillips, NU VP of Athletics & Recreation, via NUSports.com January 28, 2014
Meanwhile, Pat Fitzgerald voiced his support of Kain and the Wildcats’ actions with this tweet
Kain and our student-athletes have followed their beliefs with great passion and courage. I’m incredibly proud of our young men! GO CATS!
— Pat Fitzgerald (@coachfitz51) January 28, 2014
This is a story that won’t soon go away. Today, collegiate administrators, university presidents, attorneys and consultants across the country are asking and answering “where does this go from here?” This is going to be going on through the season and likely for several years to come. It will be fascinating to see how this plays out.
I still think the underlying beauty in this approach by CAPA is the fact there is no mention of pay-for-play in their goals (one could play the semantics game as the CAPA website goals listed are under the header “Some Goals”), yet this will be one of the driving forces to remedy that topic in major college athletics. B1G commissioner Jim Delany had actually been leading the charge on trying to get compensation for players for many of the same reasons Kirk listed in his article – cost of living stipends (note: Northwestern’s housing stipend, which is NCAA-based on cost of living is actually a very small benefit that is marketed to prospective athletes).
My final thought on this for today is the fact that Northwestern was the epicenter of this movement. I can’t help but think that is part of the equation from the story gaining national media (many of whom are NU grads) attention. I think the only better play would’ve been Stanford, which has become a BCS Bowl regular. I haven’t had the chance to connect with Kain yet, but when I do, I will ask him about the impact Jim Harbaugh’s snubbing of him at Stanford played a role in all of this. You might remember Kain was offered a scholarship by then Stanford head coach Jim Harbaugh, but Colter, who suffered a shoulder injury in high school got strung along by the Cardinal under the auspice of getting academically admitted. As Signing Day approached, Colter couldn’t get a straight answer and decided to contact NU and then committed.
I can’t help but think of how the discourse might be different if this were, say, Florida players. It’s not the first time a Northwestern football player has taken on the NCAA. Heisman trophy finalist, Darnell Autry, sued the NCAA – and won – the right to act in a film and receive compensation without jeopardizing his football career. Fitz constantly preaches developing leaders for life after football. You can disagree on the tactics, but today, my thought is Kain Colter has become a pretty visible example of what the Wildcat football program develops. Ironically, it could be this leadership development that upends the sport and the team that we love.
I completely disagree with the players unionizing. But, I’m proud as heck today to call myself a Northwestern alum. In the coming days, I’ll be using this blog to post reaction that represents multiple perspectives on the issue. Have at it.