Footballs are leather. Teams play on grass. Pads are made of nonmetallic materials. So why is the United Steelworkers union bankrolling the efforts of the Northwestern University football team to unionize?
Maybe it’s because they play on a grid-iron. But if so, the Ironworkers union must be molten-mad at what would seem a hostile takeover of its natural constituency.
Or maybe it’s because organized labor is desperate in its quest to stay relevant, given that private sector union density is a paltry 7 percent, a level not seen since 1932.
But using a trick play, the Steelworkers and the football team, led by quarterback Kain Colter, are ahead in the first quarter, thanks to a controversial call by the ref — National Labor Relations Board Regional Director Peter Sung Ohr. In his ruling, Ohr decided that Northwestern scholarship players are "employees" of the university, and can therefore unionize. On its face, the argument would seem likely to get sacked. But with the courts, you never know.
But the union issue is a red herring, with the big picture being entirely missed. Instead of discussing whether players should be paid or if they are "student-athletes" or just "athletes," the situation can never truly improve until the NCAA is either abolished, or at the least, massively reformed.
The NCAA — officially a nonprofit, which sounds like an April Fool’s joke — has become an authoritarian religion demanding that all who want to play, or administer, college sports must bow to it, strictly adhering to its creed — or risk swift excommunication. It rakes in billions off the backs of football players and their universities while rewarding both with mind-boggling restrictions. No one pays to watch sanctimonious, fat cat hypocrites masquerading as caring NCAA executives. The athletes are the star attraction, yet they get precious little for their efforts, compared to the revenue they generate.
The NCAA monopoly needs to be broken, and reformed from top to bottom. Only government can do it under the auspices of anti-trust violations, but given its complexity, we’ll deal with that in a separate column.
Now let’s look at the lawsuit itself:
1.) On a political note, this case illustrates an often-overlooked but extremely important aspect of presidential power. While high-profile nominees generate headlines, those appointed to the obscure National Labor Relations Board make decisions that affect millions of Americans. From its case against Boeing — because that company moved some production facilities to another state — to the Northwestern case, the NLRB, reflecting the philosophy of the president, has made many far-reaching decisions.
2.) Are scholarship players employees of the university? Maybe.
There are numerous statutes defining what constitutes an employee, but a general description is one who reports to a boss (in this case, the coach), at a particular place and time (a set schedule), and fulfills agreed upon duties (practice, games and all team-related activities) in exchange for economic compensation (scholarships). From that perspective, it becomes difficult to argue that they are not employees — especially given the benefit received by the employer (millions in revenue).
3.) On the other hand, one of the "employee" arguments is that players are sought solely for their playing abilities. Therefore, they are not student-athletes, but just athletes. But if that were the case, the athletes wouldn’t be required to attend class, since the "student" part would no longer be relevant. But they are mandated to go to class and required to maintain certain grades to remain eligible. Tutors travel with the teams, and academics, depending on the school, play an important role in college athletes’ lives. If team members didn’t go to class, they wouldn’t remain on the team.
4.) Ohr ruled that Northwestern prioritizes football over academics, since players aren’t permitted to take classes that conflict with practice or leave practice early to make a class. This clearly demonstrates that the director is a Monday morning quarterback who knows nothing about the real world.
My God — the horror that one has to schedule classes around practice! Guess what? So does the band, many of whom are also on scholarship. And other athletes. And the student body president. And all those who have jobs on or off campus. Kind of like how people have to schedule their privates lives — from picking up the kids to dropping off the dry cleaning — around their jobs. To claim that players are employees because the team has a dedicated schedule is downright insulting. Maybe if Ohr had a private sector job, he’d understand the concept.
5.) Regardless of whether players are employees, where does it end? Can academic scholarship recipients form a union? Surely they would be employees too, since they are being "paid" via their scholarship, and they bring in revenue, even if indirectly, when their high marks and excellent records make the university a more desirable institution — allowing it to charge higher tuition. What about poor, affirmative action students? They add diversity to the school, further enhancing its appeal, which can be a financial windfall, as many state and federal grant programs exist solely for minority and low-income students — money that ends up in university coffers.
So if the criteria for "employees" to unionize are based on revenue generated for the school, it clearly can’t, and won’t, just be for football.
6.) The elephant in the room is whether athletes should be paid, receiving some stipend to offset expenses. Sure, a full ride at 50, 60 and even 70 grand per year is fantastic, but to lose it all because a dirt-poor student signs a jersey for pizza money or accepts a bus ticket home to see mom and dad at Thanksgiving is insane.
Paying athletes shouldn’t be for the NLRB to decide. Instead, it should be a decision made at the university or conference level, using the free market as a guide. But the NCAA doesn’t allow it, and things won’t change until the justice department breaks the NCAA’s monopoly on deciding such issues.
Undoubtedly, college football players deserve some level of protection and compensation. But permitting them to unionize isn’t the way to go. Instead, it’s time to strike at the heart of the matter, demanding that the NCAA reform itself, or be locked out. And that would be a touchdown — for everyone.
Chris Freind is an independent columnist and commentator. His print column appears every Wednesday. He can be reached at [email protected].