Greg Cote

April 3, 2014

Greg Cote: College football players should not have the right to unionize

The quixotic quest emanating from Northwestern University — to unionize college football players — has a noble charm to it that is appealing, at least at first glance.

The quixotic quest emanating from Northwestern University — to unionize college football players — has a noble charm to it that is appealing, at least at first glance.

There is a distinct David-and-Goliath feel: The Little Player aiming a righteous slingshot at the Big University that reaps millions off his uncompensated labor.

It has a grassroots quality as well. What’s happening at Northwestern is a sort of distant cousin of the sit-in demonstrations that once were common on campuses — an uprising that back in the day might have been met with cries of “Power to the people!” or “Stick it to The Man!”

Also, the NCAA of course vehemently opposes the idea of an athlete union, which is reason enough to automatically generate broad support for it, given that the NCAA is generally seen as the earthly incarnation of the devil.

The issue is dense but worth tackling, particularly because only football teams at private universities are affected by last week’s National Labor Relations Board ruling, and one of those private-institution teams may be found in Coral Gables doing business as the Miami Hurricanes.

The NLRB ruling that football players are university employees who may unionize and collectively bargain is of monumental interest and concern to UM and other private colleges because their teams could follow Northwestern’s lead if the right to unionize survives an appeal and then the federal courts and is eventually upheld.

I’m not sure the NLRB decision will be overturned, but I think it should be. It isn’t the right ruling just because one regional director in Chicago decided it was. The National Labor Relations Act excludes many categories of workers, including individual contractors. I’d bet the NCAA and colleges will argue football players are just that.

The ruling to allow a union is wrong for a lot of reasons.

One reason is that the noble ideal of the “student-athlete” would be further and ultimately corrupted by this move toward professionalism and eventual pay-for-play. It would reflect “how much college sports has lost its connection to the academic priorities that should define it,” says Rick Legon, president of the collegiate Association of Governing Boards.

He is right. The idea of the student-athlete and the ideal of amateurism are seen as quaint and outmoded by some, but they are worth protecting. A line must be drawn that isn’t crossed.

The more practical reason this NLRB ruling is wrong is that its very premise is faulty. College football is portrayed as tantamount to slave labor, where mistreated players toil and get nothing in return while their universities get rich.

Wrong, wrong.

Football players at major colleges are some of the most pampered students on campus, and they are richly paid. It’s called a full-ride scholarship.

More than $2.7 billion in athletic scholarships are given each year, most gobbled up by football.

It costs about $62,000 a year to attend the University of Miami. That’s tantamount to a football player on a four-year scholarship getting paid roughly $250,000 while he (presumably) gets his degree and also enjoys the coaching and national exposure to help him get drafted, perhaps, into the riches of the NFL.

Tell any other student paying his or her own way that the poor football player is mistreated and needs union protection.

The average college student graduates with more than $35,000 in tuition-related debt that can take years or even decades to pay off, and the debt is much greater at pricey private schools such as UM. Those on football scholarships have no such future burden.

(Also, contrary to popular belief, football players are allowed to have part-time jobs if they choose.)

The Northwestern petition to unionize approved by the NLRB concerns only compensation benefits for injuries well into a player’s future and working conditions, for now, even though players already get better free health care than typical students and practices are limited by NCAA rules.

In time, there is no question a union would lead to pay-for-play, and that’s when the real mess would start.

This, too, is a faulty premise — the idea that players should be paid (beyond the value of their scholarship) because they contribute so much to the millions the school generates in football revenue. (Northwestern, for example, is said to have generated $235 million in football revenue and made $76 million in profit from 2003 through ’12.)

But here’s the thing:

The vast majority of football players on any college team’s roster are interchangeable parts who have little or no impact on a university’s success or brand or profit margin. Are they really worth more than the quarter-of-a-million-dollar free ride they are getting?

The NLRB ruling alludes to the “enormous commercial value” of players’ work. Wrong. Players come and go and very few have much direct impact. For every Johnny Manziel or Jameis Winston using college as a springboard to the NFL, there are dozens of replaceable pawns.

The brand that sells is Ohio State or Southern Cal or Miami. Very, very rarely is it the temporary name on the back of any jersey.

You want to give the national stars such as Manziel or Winston a cut of their jersey sales or compensate them if you use their likeness to sell video games? Fine. That seems reasonable.

But the idea of eventually paying all football players beyond their scholarships is dumb and would be an absolute nightmare for college sports. Who would decide relative value? Is the starting left guard worth more than the backup tight end? If football players get paid, what about basketball? Would you pay the men but not the women?

Meantime, scholarships and funding in non-revenue sports would be threatened, and mandatory student fees would be increased in order to fund the union-negotiated, collectively bargained player payrolls at the top of the food chain.

It’s a holy mess in waiting.

All because somebody decided a free college education wasn’t enough.

All because somebody decided the order in “student-athlete” had the priorities backward.

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