Tuesday, April 29, 2014


By Ronald Fox
One of the best features of America is that our citizens have the right to protest for rights. Virtually every achievement in social justice in the US has been precipitated not by reasoned action by our leaders to “do the right thing,” but by direct citizen protest actions. This is a rich history of which we Americans can be proud.
Taking on established practice has not been easy given that protectors of the status quo have inertia on their side and possess far greater power resources to deploy. They have fiercely fought citizen demands for fairness and justice, especially when citizen gains would come at their expense. Such is the situation today with the group of inspired Northwestern University football players challenging their university, the N.C.A.A, and, by extension, state legislatures.  They have the audacity to want to form a union.
Condemnation of their action has been widespread. Few “experts” thought their move would get very far; surely not past the National Labor Relations Board, which would certainly uphold legal precedent and declare football players “student athletics,” and not workers. What a shock to the experts when a regional director of the N.L.R.B. ruled that since the Northwestern players were given value for their services—scholarships worth over $60,000 annually—they were in fact workers. They thus had the right to organize themselves into a union as well as receive workers’ compensation, benefits, unemployment insurance, and some portion of the revenue generated by college sports.
Say what? Unionize? Share in proceeds? Not on our watch said Northwestern officials and the N.C.A.A. Unionization would tear down the entire fabric of college sports, they cried. If Northwestern football players can unionize, why can’t athletes on all campuses in all scholarship sports? And, what about other school employees, like teacher assistants, cafeteria workers, custodians, parking officers, even work-study students? Where would it end?
Northwestern was quick to respond, organizing a wide-ranging campaign to defeat the unionization vote scheduled to take place on April 25. They cajoled players to vote no, for themselves, the university, and for collegiate sports in general. Coaches and former players were paraded out to warn players of the dire consequences of a yes vote. They were even told forming a union would make it harder for them to land jobs after graduation.
The N.C.A.A. was also quick to respond, insinuating that cable television revenue streams, which it lavishes on major sport universities, might dry up at universities where football players could collectively bargain. This brings the confrontation into clear focus: Northwestern University has indeed been put on the spot, but for the N.C.A.A., the N.L.R.B. decision, even though it applies only to private universities (the N.L.R.B. has no power over public institutions), threatens their very existence. It is gearing up for the fight of its life.
So, a great deal appears to be at stake. Football players voted on April 25, but the votes will not be counted until after the full N.L.R.B board deliberates on an appeal from Northwestern University. This could take several months. If the regional director’s ruling is upheld, Northwestern scholarship football players will be considered employees, which will stand regardless of how the players vote on forming a union. If the ruling is overturned, then the vote will be mute and the ballots will not be counted.
Whatever you think about unions, or the grave consequences that could result if the Northwestern football players are declared employees, isn’t it about time somebody takes on the dictatorial N.C.A.A.?  Many have grumbled about how the organization establishes rules and regulations on players without their input,  inconsistently applies penalties for violations of its ground rules, many of which are unreasonable and outdated, and how its greed leads it to reshuffle conferences, often destroying traditional rivalries, and solicit corporate sponsorships whose logos befoul institutions of higher learning.  Particularly vexing is when it exceeds its authority and imposes sanctions on a public institution, as it did to Penn State over the Sandusky affair.  Its greatest transgression, in my view, however, is its disregard, even contempt, for the athletes who generate the revenues.  
Driven by an unfettered form of free market capitalism, the N.C.A.A. has generated big bucks-- $11 billion in television contracts alone—that has ingratiated universities and coaches, but has left players obligated to reside within the confines of scholarships that barely provide enough to live on. This amounts to a form of indentured servitude for players. For players of color, who often lack the family financial support of their white counterparts, playing a major college sport is a particular financial struggle, as Shabazz Napier acknowledged when he said he goes to bed "starving."  (For an excellent account of the N.C.A.A.’s plantation mentality, see David Zirin’s, Game Over: How Politics has Turned the Sports World Upside Down.)
To be sure, the struggle of Northwestern football players against the N.C.A.A. will be an uneven fight. The powerful organization will undoubtedly reach into its deep pockets to deploy a team of fancy lawyers determined to repeal an unfavorable final N.L.R.B. ruling. With its endless supply of money, it could carry the case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, if necessary. Given the pro-business bias in the U.S. legal system, and especially at the Supreme Court, there is only scant hope the Northwestern Wildcats will win in the courts.
Though they will not likely win their legal fight, the action by the Northwestern football players is sure to shake up the system. It could even lead to players receiving a share of the revenues football and basketball generate. Shouldn’t they get a cut of shoe money, memorabilia sales, and the largesse generated by televised games and playoffs? Shouldn’t they have more freedom in choosing where to play? Shouldn’t their scholarships be guaranteed for four years, even in the face of injury of if they chose to no longer play? Why shouldn’t athletes in all sports, including women’s, share in the revenue pie?
And, if change comes, shouldn’t public university athletes be accorded the same rights and benefits as those in private schools? This would require enabling action by state legislatures. Strong resistance is to be expected, but since twenty-four states currently give collective bargaining rights to most of their public employees, swaying state legislatures is not a hopeless cause.
Most Americans hold constitutionally-guaranteed liberties and free-market capitalism sacred. Why, then, do so many Americans oppose applying these principles to the college players who generate revenue for the N.C.A.A. and their home universities? I can understand why Republicans, free-market ideologues, conservative media pundits, federal government haters, and Tea Partiers, who have consistently opposed private as well as public unions and generally favored bosses over workers in labor disputes, have condemned the NLRB ruling, but why haven’t pro-union Democrats and liberals been more vocal in support of labor rights for campus athletes?
I don’t expect most Americans to take the Northwestern football players side in the current dispute. After all, few sided with the players in the 1994 baseball strike.  Maybe most Americans think getting a free education is compensation enough. Perhaps they don’t realize how much the NCAA and universities are raking in, or that college coaches make 100 times what they made just a few decades ago. Meanwhile, scholarship athlete compensation has remained relatively static. Do people really believe the myth that college athletes are students first, and only play sports in their free time? Wake up America!
I applaud the gumption of the Northwestern football players. What they’re doing is in line with the actions of millions of other Americans who have struggled for justice. I can’t help but think of Fred Rensing who took on the N.C.A.A. in 1976 over a paralyzing injury he sustained while playing football for Indiana State. Rensing sued Indiana State for workers’ compensation benefits in a case that went through a state appeals court, which ruled in his favor, all the way to the Indiana Supreme Court, which reversed that ruling. He did not win his legal fight, and the Court’s decision gave the NCAA a legal basis for contending that college athletes are not professionals being paid for their athletic ability, but amateurs engaged in sports during their free time as students. This is the legal bedrock Northwestern football players are up against.
Though Rensing has been largely forgotten today, many advocates for NCAA reform see him as a pioneer in the struggle for employment rights for campus athletes. He didn’t spark a revolution, but he set the stage for the current Northwestern football players’ fight to change the system. Even if the players lose their legal fight, let’s hope their protest action will spark a national dialogue about the exploitive and undemocratic nature of the autocratic N.C.A.A. and the indentured servitude of college athletes. If the American people listen and learn, maybe the courts and decision makers will as well. I can hear echoes of Gideon’s Trumpet.

1 comment:

  1. I can understand that unionization would presumably provide protection for "student-athlete-employees," but having paid a ton for my son's education despite the fact that he received a nice (academic) scholarship, I would have to agree that typical athletic scholarships are pretty nice compensation for playing a game. Also, despite the millions (billions) of $$$ generated, how many colleges do you know that make a profit? We're not talking about AT&T or General Motors here.


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