So we appear to have reached the crossroads for college football and perhaps college sports as a whole. Northwestern University football players want to form a union. They claim that they qualify as employees and therefore are entitled to organized representation. Not surprisingly, Northwestern and the NCAA disagree and in the interest of full disclosure, so do I. It has been ruled by the courts several times already that student-athletes are not professionals and therefore are not employees. Let me start by saying that I do not believe that they will succeed in forming a union.
I cannot even begin to count how many times I have taken part in the inevitable next part of this conversation. Just how much are college athletes entitled to as compensation. One estimate I have seen estimates the cost of five years of college at Northwestern to be in excess of three hundred thousand dollars. I have maintained in the past and still stand by my assessment that such compensation is worthy of the effort and risk involved with playing college football.
And, of course, there are all the normal arguments in play here. “Schools are raking in millions of dollars and the players get nothing.” Of course that isn’t true. Yes, most schools (especially the ones in the power conferences) make very good money on football. However, that money must then be spread throughout the entire athletic department to finance a myriad of sports that are not profitable. Teams have to travel in sports like soccer, wrestling, softball, women’s basketball, gymnastics and golf. Those sports rarely bring in break even money. I have read on several occasions that many FBS schools do well just to break even or turn a slight profit in the overall athletic department. Coaching salaries for the better coaches have gone through the roof, but regardless of how fair you might think it to be those salaries are not going down if your school wants to hire an elite coach.
On the other side of the debate, you hear things like “this will kill college football.” That probably isn’t true either. It is safe to say that any real program to substantially pay players money will change football and all college athletics as we know it. Based on Title IX requirements, I cannot see any chance that schools will be able to pay football players and without paying athletes in other sports. It doesn’t take a math whiz to figure out that if some athletic departments are barely treading water already that this would be a big blow. Nor is there any way you can allow some schools to pay players if other schools in the same classification cannot. Spare me the obligatory “schools are already paying players secretly” line. If they are, they run the risk of being caught and dealing with the consequences.
The players at Northwestern do bring up some interesting concerns. I do believe that more could be done to provide for players to finish getting their degrees if they are not complete when their eligibility runs out and to provide for further studies if they would like to continue their education, especially those players who are not fortunate enough to become a professional in their sport. Of course, the issue then becomes whether those scholarship extensions would apply to athletes in non-profitable sports as well. As you see, this is not as cut and dried as the simplistic “players are being taken advantage of” accusations made, for the most part, by people who do not have to consider the bigger picture.
Another concern voiced by the Northwestern players is health and safety. They would like better protective equipment, especially in the area of concussions. That would seem to be extremely reasonable and something that should be addressed immediately. They also discussed the costs for medical treatment after they have left college for ailments relating to injuries on the playing field. At face value, that one seems pretty reasonable. However, where are the parameters set for this practice? If a player suffers a knee injury playing football at the age of 21 and then at the age of 56 is told that he needs to have knee replacement, is the university supposed to pay for that knee replacement? I don’t think so. There are a lot of people requiring knee replacement that never played a sport in their life. It would be next to impossible to verify that the football injury caused the knee replacement. On the other hand, if a player suffers a major injury that requires continued treatment that extends past his or her college eligibility, the school should continue to cover the cost of that treatment. I must honestly admit that I do not know if or how much that takes place at this time.
Collegiate sports are an entity and circumstance unlike any other. To think that the practices and solutions used in other situations (like professional sports for instance) will work at the collegiate level is foolish. They will not, at least not without running the very high probability of severely damaging the very programs that are providing education opportunities to so many young people who would not have access to those opportunities any other way.
At the risk of taking some heat, I will end this piece by giving my opinion on where to go from here. First and foremost, I think people need to stop whining about what’s fair. Virtually nothing in life is fair and nobody is entitled to fair. What you are entitled to is having the parameters in which you will be expected to perform explained in depth and honestly to you so that you can decide whether you wish to take part. If you feel others are benefitting unfairly from your efforts and that is a problem for you, do not accept the scholarship. If you can find another way to showcase your talents to prospective future employers, go for it. If not, then you might want to figure out how to live within the environment that currently exists, because if the players get their way I believe they run the very real risk of killing the goose that is laying all those golden eggs. And I will admit that I am selfish here. I love college football and do not want to see it destroyed from within.