Northwestern Football Team Makes a Play To Change The Rules

With a historic union bid, players are confronting decades of exploitation.

Leo Gerard, United Steelworkers President

Individual athletes have achieved little success in confronting the schools and the NCAA on vital issues, so Northwestern football players are doing it as a team. (Jonathan Daniel /Allsport/Getty Images)

For decades, col­lege foot­ball play­ers absorbed some pret­ty cheap shots from their schools and the NCAA.

Athletes knew it wasn’t right that universities rescinded academic scholarships and refused to cover medical treatment for players permanently injured.

These ath­letes knew it wasn’t right that uni­ver­si­ties rescind­ed aca­d­e­m­ic schol­ar­ships and refused to cov­er med­ical treat­ment for play­ers per­ma­nent­ly injured in col­lege games.

The schools and the NCAA, flush with bil­lions in TV con­tract cash, and coach­es and uni­ver­si­ty pres­i­dents rolling in mil­lion-dol­lar pay pack­ages, all banked on play­ers con­duct­ing them­selves as stereo­type dumb jocks.

But last week, North­west­ern Uni­ver­si­ty foot­ball play­ers showed they’d learned more than play­books in years of grid­iron train­ing. They’d also learned team­work. They under­stood that indi­vid­u­als don’t win foot­ball games. And they knew they weren’t going to win this fierce con­test with their schools and the NCAA with­out team­work. So they formed a new team, their own team, the Col­lege Ath­letes Play­ers Asso­ci­a­tion (CAPA). They peti­tioned the Nation­al Labor Rela­tions Board (NLRB) to rec­og­nize CAPA as a labor union, which could nego­ti­ate with the schools and exert the col­lec­tive pow­er of a team rather than the weak hand of an individual.

In a hear­ing before the NLRB lat­er this month, CAPA will explain why the North­west­ern schol­ar­ship ath­letes are employ­ees of the uni­ver­si­ty. They are recruit­ed, as cor­po­ra­tions recruit exec­u­tives. They are paid, not with cash but with aca­d­e­m­ic scholarships.

Like employ­ers, uni­ver­si­ties stop the schol­ar­ships if the ath­letes don’t work. It’s pit­tance pay for dan­ger­ous play. Ath­letes are hurt rou­tine­ly, some suf­fer­ing injuries that remove them from the game per­ma­nent­ly and that plague them for a life­time. Uni­ver­si­ties often revoke the schol­ar­ships of injured ath­letes who can no longer per­form on the field, just as cor­po­ra­tions stop pay­ing work­ers who don’t show up and per­form their jobs.

These ath­letes work full-time for the uni­ver­si­ties. The NCAA’s own sta­tis­tics, from its Growth, Oppor­tu­ni­ties, Aspi­ra­tions and Learn­ing of Stu­dents in Col­lege Study showed that the aver­age FBS foot­ball play­er spent 43.3 hours a week in train­ing or games in sea­son and Divi­sion I men’s bas­ket­ball play­ers spent 39.2 hours.

In addi­tion, the uni­ver­si­ties con­trol where these stu­dents live, what they eat, their sum­mer activ­i­ties and even what they can say to reporters. The NCAA can pun­ish them by lim­it­ing their play­ing time if they change schools.

And it’s all about their work on the field and not at all about aca­d­e­mics. The NCAA and the uni­ver­si­ties don’t include col­lege com­ple­tion as part of their com­mit­ment to these ath­letes. The sta­tis­tics show that’s not impor­tant to the schools. They don’t grad­u­ate 43 per­cent of their foot­ball play­ers and 53 per­cent of men’s bas­ket­ball play­ers. One for­mer start­ing quar­ter­back and team cap­tain is suing because he says a new coach at his North Car­oli­na school cut off his schol­ar­ship after he missed a few prac­tices to attend an aca­d­e­m­ic intern­ship that an ear­li­er coach had approved.

Uni­ver­si­ty schol­ar­ship ath­letes don’t have a say in any of this. The NCAA does not give play­ers a seat at the table where uni­ver­si­ty offi­cials make the rules. Indi­vid­ual ath­letes have achieved lit­tle suc­cess in con­fronting the schools and the NCAA on vital issues like con­cus­sions and med­ical care.

Ramo­gi Huma, a for­mer UCLA line­backer, found­ed the Nation­al Col­lege Play­ers Asso­ci­a­tion (NCPA) in 2001 to secure bet­ter treat­ment for uni­ver­si­ty play­ers. Dur­ing the Cham­pi­onship Series title game, the NCPA flew a ban­ner for hours over the Rose Bowl that read, All Play­ers Unit­ed for Con­cus­sion Reform. Wake up NCAA!” It has not yet smelled the roses.

NCPA has pressed the NCAA for a con­sis­tent pol­i­cy on con­cus­sions sus­tained on the field that would ensure the health and safe­ty of play­ers. Some for­mer ath­letes are suing the NCAA over this now.

Play­er sup­port for NCPA’s efforts is broad­er than North­west­ern. Dur­ing last year’s foot­ball sea­son, play­ers around the coun­try joined North­west­ern quar­ter­back Kain Colter in wear­ing wrist­bands with the ini­tials APU, which stands for All Play­ers United.

If the North­west­ern play­ers win their case before the NLRB, Huma hopes CAPA will be able to orga­nize foot­ball and bas­ket­ball play­ers at oth­er pri­vate uni­ver­si­ties. That would give the ath­letes a stronger voice in deal­ing with the NCAA and the universities.

Even though the NCAA and the uni­ver­si­ties get bil­lions for the ath­letes’ work, Huma and Colter, who spoke for the North­west­ern foot­ball play­ers, are not ask­ing for mon­ey. Instead, they want med­ical cov­er­age for sports-relat­ed injuries sus­tained by cur­rent and for­mer play­ers. They want new efforts to min­i­mize trau­mat­ic brain injuries. They want uni­ver­si­ties to improve grad­u­a­tion rates by estab­lish­ing an edu­ca­tion­al trust fund to help for­mer play­ers com­plete degrees.

Huma and Colter held a press con­fer­ence in Chica­go last week to announce CAPA. My union, the Unit­ed Steel­work­ers, was there. When Huma formed NCPA, he turned to the Steel­work­ers for help because he knew the Steel­work­ers aid­ed the Stu­dents Against Sweat­shops chap­ter on his cam­pus. The Steel­work­ers are cov­er­ing CAPA’s legal expens­es but would not rep­re­sent the play­ers and would not receive dues mon­ey from them.

The Steel­work­ers feel sol­i­dar­i­ty with these ath­letes. Like them, Steel­work­ers know the val­ue of team­work. In Chica­go 77 years ago, police gunned down 10 and injured 30 steel­work­ers and sup­port­ers as they demon­strat­ed for a first labor con­tract with Repub­lic Steel. Steel­work­ers stuck togeth­er after what came to be known as the Memo­r­i­al Day Mas­sacre and even­tu­al­ly won a con­tract with Repub­lic and a fair­er share of the fruits of their labor.

Only a team can achieve that.

Leo Ger­ard is inter­na­tion­al pres­i­dent of the Unit­ed Steel­work­ers Union, part of the AFL-CIO. The son of a union min­er; Ger­ard start­ed work­ing at a nick­el smelter in Sud­bury, Ontario, at age 18, and rose through the union’s ranks to be appoint­ed the sev­enth inter­na­tion­al pres­i­dent Feb. 28, 2001. For more infor­ma­tion about Ger­ard, vis­it usw​.org.
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