Northwestern's Kain Colter has become the face of a new player's union movement. Photo: USA Today Sports
Debates over whether college football players should be paid or not is not fading any time soon. Tuesday's news that Northwestern football players are taking the initiative to form a union that would represent college football players has been something that has been brewing for some time now, and it should come as no surprise that it was Northwestern players that took the first steps in the process.
In the 24 hours after the news was broken by ESPN's Outside the Lines, I have heard a number of conversations about the topic on my local sports radio choices in Philadelphia. Philadelphia is not necessarily a college football hotbed — sorry Temple — so it takes a significant story to even hear the words college football uttered on either station in the area. I already knew this was a big story but when I heard this union news being discussed on the local airwaves I knew it already had an impact.
I was also quickly reminded just how uninformed some people seem to be about this subject. This is not about paying players, not yet at least. Could the idea of a union one day develop in to breaking down a wall that would allow players to be compensated for their services as student-athletes? Absolutely, but for now this is about making sure the players are represented with their best interests in mind.
The common misconception here is that players are unionizing for the purpose of being paid. For now, Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter simply wants the players to have a seat at the adult's table with the powers that determine how the game is operated and governed.
"Right now the NCAA is like a dictatorship," Colter said in the report shared by Outside the Lines. "No one represents us in negotiations. The only way things are going to change is if players have a union."
Few would debate that the college football world has grown immensely off the production of the players. The players should never receive all of the credit for the growth of the game of course, but when the game is being run with a business mentality and network executives are finalizing mega media deals with conferences and bowl games, and coaches are seeing salaries increase every year, the players are often left behind. Bowl swag is nice, but players deserve to have some say in how the game they play is operated and managed. They do not necessarily need to have a vote in every manner, but having their voice heard should be fair.
“A lot of people will think this is all about money; it’s not,” Colter told The Chicago Tribune. “We’re asking for a seat at the table to get our voice heard.”
As the official website for the National College Players Association lays out, there are a number of concerns the organization plans to address. Among the 11 interests, none seeks to directly pay athletes for playing at a school, although a few are related to increasing the value of a scholarship and addressing medical bills and employment opportunities.
John Infante of The Bylaw Blog lays out the process that still needs to be completed before a player's union of college football players becomes a reality. In brief, the National Labor Relations Board must first come to a decision on whether or not student-athletes should be considered employees. Second would be classifying student athletes at public universities according to various state laws. This could be a tricky and time consumer, but it is important. Public university employees are considered state employees, which is where college football players would technically fall under in this case. Whether or not that binds the players from those state-governed unions would be key, because players at private institutions would fall under a separate category. Would this be something that forces some schools to reclassify as private or public universities moving forward?
As expected, the NCAA is not too happy about this union talk.
"This union-backed attempt to turn student-athletes into employees undermines the purpose of college: an education," a statement from the NCAA reads. "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."
The basic philosophies of the NCAA's mission are solid when you look past the obvious flaws. I believe the NCAA does have the interest of student athletes at heart, but it is painfully clear to most people outside of Indianapolis that sometimes a change in philosophy is needed. College football in particular has outgrown the NCAA model, which is why we are seeing support for autonomy of the power conferences that have been able to build their own worlds.
Change is difficult to embrace, but sometimes it is needed. College football today is not the same it was 10, 20 or 50 years ago. Maybe a player's union is a bad idea. Maybe it does lead to players signing free agent contracts instead of National Letters of Intent one day.
Time will be the ultimate judge to what Tuesday's union movement means, but for now it is important to realize what the objective is. It is not about getting players to be paid by the top universities. It is simply about having the voice of the players heard among the NCAA megaphone and cash registers ringing every time a new network deal is signed off on by conferences.