Column: Reforming College Football

NLRB decision gives football players the right to unionize at private universities; unclear what impact will be, but NCAA, all universities should push for reforms on their own
John U. Bacon

John U. Bacon

Last week, in a surprising decision, the National Labor Relations Board granted the Northwestern University football players the right to unionize, if they want.

But what does that mean? What doesn’t it mean? And how might this change the future of college football?

The NLRB’s ruling made a big splash, but it’s actually very narrow. The decision applies only to private schools. There are only a handful or two that play big time college football – usually about one per major conference – a short list that includes universities like Duke, Rice, Vanderbilt, Stanford and USC. Further, the Northwestern players still have to vote to unionize – not a given – and no matter how they vote, the university is going to appeal the NLRB’s decision.

But the Wildcat players have been very shrewd, and will be hard to dismiss. That starts with their leader, senior quarterback Kain Colter. I got to know him pretty well while researching my latest book, “Fourth and Long,” and I can tell you he’s one of the more impressive young men to play the game today.

Colter is a pre-med major who often had to miss summer workouts to attend afternoon labs. The group he’s formed – the somewhat redundant College Athletes Players Association (CAPA) – is also wisely not asking for money, but post-graduate health care for injuries suffered while playing. Seems to me it’s pretty hard for any university – created to improve the lives of its students, after all – to argue against that.

Because he’s a graduating senior, Colter is not acting out of self-interest, either. He’s working for those who will come after him – while potentially jeopardizing his appeal to the NFL teams who might draft him this spring. He’s also made it clear that Northwestern has been very good to him, from President Schapiro to athletic director Jim Phillips to his coach, Pat Fitzgerald. Having studied the program throughout 2012, I can tell you unequivocally that Northwestern is a model of how college athletics should be done.

So what’s going to happen next? Anybody who claims they really know is either stupid or silly or both. We have never been here before. But we do know a few things already.

First, what the Northwestern players are asking for is exactly what the NCAA, the leagues and the schools should have been providing for decades anyway: health care for injuries sustained while playing for their schools. In other words, the same protection the universities give their employees who are injured on the job – and few jobs are more dangerous than football.

While they’re at it, the NCAA should end the very cynical policy of providing one-year scholarships. That’s right: when an athlete gets a scholarship, it’s not a four- or five-year deal, but a year-by-year contract, leaving him entirely at the mercy of the coach. At an upright school like Northwestern, the players don’t have anything to worry about. But at too many other schools, the coaches exploit this shady arrangement every season.

A scholarship should automatically cover the players’ entire education, even if their careers end due to injuries or disappointing play, so long as they’re making an honest effort – and they should keep that scholarship until they earn their degree, even after their eligibility runs out. It’s difficult to finish a bachelor’s degree while working 40 hours a week on your sport – and that’s what it takes, no matter what the NCAA claims.

Michigan quarterback Devin Gardner is a serious student, who asks more questions per hour than the rest of his classmates combined. He does very well in class, though not as well as he’d like. When I asked him once what he would be if he wasn’t the Michigan quarterback, he thought about it, then said, “An ‘A’ student.”

If the NCAA is serious about the “student” part of “student-athlete,” now would be a great time to prove it.

The NCAA should also ban the increasingly obscene practice of paying bonuses to head coaches, assistant coaches and even athletic directors for milestones the players themselves achieve. Last week, when Ohio State wrestler Logan Stieber won his third consecutive national title without a loss – an incredible feat – his athletic director, Gene Smith, automatically received an $18,000 bonus for Stieber’s thousands of hours of work. Stieber, of course, couldn’t take an extra dime.

Doesn’t the nonprofit NCAA find that outrageous?

They should also outlaw, completely, the practice of “oversigning.” This occurs when unethical coaches promise more incoming freshmen scholarships than they have. When they all arrive on campus in August, they conduct what amounts to an on-campus try-out to whittle their numbers down to the 25 scholarships they actually have. The losers go home, having already turned down offers from other schools, and try to pick up the pieces.

If the NCAA rights these wrongs, I’d bet the Northwestern players call their efforts a success – as they should – and drop their campaign.

And there are good reasons why they might. Most college athletes are actually getting a pretty good deal. In my previous book, “Three and Out,” I calculated that for an out-of-state, fifth-year senior at Michigan, the free tuition, meals and travel easily come to $580,000. And that doesn’t count the cost of the academic counseling and tutoring, the strength and conditioning, or the athletic training – let alone the cost of those buildings. If the student-athletes become employees, the IRS could easily conclude they have to pay taxes on their scholarships, and everything else.

If the players do unionize, and become employees of their schools, I also wonder if their new identity will diminish the appeal of college sports. College fans aren’t attracted to excellence – any pro team can beat any college team, in any sport – they’re attracted to romance. If the magic bubble bursts, the fans might decide to stop supporting the venture, and then who’s paying the bills?

In fact, both parties should be careful what they wish for, or the law of unintended consequences could obliterate the benefits both sides receive. I honestly don’t think either side has given the long-term consequences of their actions very much thought.

For now, the NLRB’s decision is less important legally than it is symbolically – more Rosa Parks than Brown v. Board of Education. For the first time, a group of players has formally organized, and been officially recognized. And in the process, they’ve discovered something I finally realized in the past couple years: the players have no power – until they threaten to sit down, together. Then, suddenly, they have all of it.

I hope the people who run college athletics are listening – but their hearing has been impaired for so long, I wouldn’t bet on it.

They should do the right thing, and do it now, or risk losing everything.

Seems like an easy decision to you and me – but that’s why we’re not the NCAA.

About the writer: Ann Arbor resident John U. Bacon is the author of the national bestsellers Fourth and Long: The Future of College Football,Bo’s Lasting Lessons” and “Three and Out: Rich Rodriguez and the Michigan Wolverines in the Crucible of College Football.” You can follow him on Twitter (@Johnubacon), and at

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  1. April 4, 2014 at 10:49 am | permalink

    Because the Northwestern students are football players the focus of course has been on revenue-generating sports–men’s football and basketball, mostly.

    But the majority of college sports are not revenue generating, and it’s worth looking at how the non-revenue-generating sports, and particularly women’s sports, might be affect.

    In any case, the Title IX Blog has two excellent articles about this.

    In post #1 [link], Erin Buzuvis writes:

    What is the effect on Title IX from all of this? I believe that if the decision results in actual bargained-for benefits for student-athletes of one sex, Title IX would continue to require that such benefits inure equally to student-athletes of the other sex. Imagine that, for example, a football players’ union succeeds in bargaining for extended health insurance — the Northwestern football players’ stated objective. It would clearly violate Title IX if that benefit only applied to male athletes and not female athletes — even though the male athletes bargained for it and the female athletes did not. Title IX regulations require schools to provide equal treatment in the aggregate to its men’s and women’s programs, as measured by a “laundry list” of factors that expressly includes access to medical services, which has been interpreted to include “the equivalence for men and women of…health, accident and injury insurance coverage.”

    And in post #2 [link], Erin Buzuvis writes:

    I think that the same analysis would apply even if the bargained-for benefit is salaried compensation.

    And contrary to what other commentators have stated, I do not think that the revenue-producing nature of the sport is the basis for a distinction.

    Here’s why: Because when it comes to the treatment of student-athletes, the revenue-producing nature of the sport has already been rejected as the basis for unequal treatment among male and female athletes. A school could not decide to provide better locker rooms, or more quality coaching staff, or disproportionately high scholarship dollars, or any other benefit to football players on the grounds that football derives revenue and other sports don’t. That is well-settled, “black letter” Title IX law. So the revenue argument would not justify providing extended health insurance to players of one sex. Nor should it justify providing salaried compensation to players of one sex.

  2. By Jack Eaton
    April 4, 2014 at 5:01 pm | permalink

    The comment posted by Ruth Kraut presents some interesting issues. What would constitute equal treatment of male and female athletes for purposes of providing employment compensation? The interaction between the mandates of Title IX and the collective bargaining process under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) is not clear cut.

    It might help to use a hypothetical situation. For purposes of illustration lets imagine 4 teams, 2 male and 2 female. Further, lets say that the two male teams each voted to be represented by a union but only one of the female teams voted for union representation.

    If one male team, lets say the football team, negotiated continued medical insurance after playing for the university and the other team, lets say the basketball team, negotiated actual wages while playing, what would the female team members receive? Because each of the male teams is represented by a union, the employer university cannot mandate that they accept the same contract deal. The NLRA prohibits the employer from doing that.

    The female team that is represented by a union would also have complete freedom in pursuing the kind of employment compensation its members wanted, without regard to what the male teams received. Any attempt to impose employment terms in that labor contract because of the deal reached with the unions representing the male teams would be an unfair labor practice under the NLRA. Good faith bargaining with the union representing the female athletes might result in a completely different kind of employment compensation than either team of male athletes receive.

    The unrepresented female athletes would be entitled to equal treatment compared to the male athletes. But what would that be? Would it be the insurance provided to the male football players or the wages paid to the male basketball players? Would the negotiated agreement with the union representing female athletes have any impact on the question of equal treatment?

    I completely support the intent of Title IX. The mandates of that Act will have an interesting impact on the collective bargaining process for each of the unions representing male and female athletes. I don’t think anyone can predict the eventual outcome.

  3. By OWS resident
    April 7, 2014 at 1:52 pm | permalink

    I was appalled when I heard that the basketball coaching staff would be getting huge bonuses for every game advanced in the NIT tournament.
    The bonus given to the Ohio State AD is simply beyond reasonable.
    Here is an idea. If the athletic department feels they need to spread around the pot of gold they get in the post season, why not make this an educational experience for the team. Let the team decide what nonprofits they want to support, and distribute the bonuses to the nonprofits. Some of these athletes are going to soon have more money than they are used to having, and the experience of choosing where to distribute charity would be a good thing.