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)

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Athletes knew it wasn’t right that universities rescinded academic scholarships and refused to cover medical treatment for players permanently injured.

These athletes knew it wasn’t right that universities rescinded academic scholarships and refused to cover medical treatment for players permanently injured in college games.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

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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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