North by Northwestern: Football union petition should incite much needed NCAA rules evaluation

mendozaathletesstudentsThe debate regarding whether or not student athletes deserve to get paid seemed to reach a head last season with the Johnny Manziel and Oklahoma State scandals coming to light, but until last week, it was just that – a debate.

Now, players from the Northwestern football team have turned the debate on its head by petitioning the National Labor Relations Board in an attempt to be represented by the College Athletes Players Association.

A ruling in their favor would effectively form the first college athletes players union and force NCAA Division I football administrators, or the NCAA “dictatorship” as former Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter called it, to re-evaluate the NCAA’s economic structure.

 
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This challenge is well overdue and when decided should provide some context to the legality and social implications of what the NCAA is doing with its student-athletes.

Minimally, the decision will give some shape to a debate that was growing stale and ideally it will make a ruling on where student-athletes stand in regards to their status as employees of universities.

I don’t think the issue is black or white, and I certainly don’t think paying student athletes (or even just those in the profitable sports) is going to solve the debate.

I do, however, think a decision in favor of the Northwestern football players will force universities to be more responsible when it comes to dealing with injured athletes, who often lose their scholarships and get stuck with medical bills.

It will also force universities to re-address and redefine rules that were put into place before college football became a billion-dollar industry.

The NCAA, of course, is sticking to its guns and repeating the utterance that dates back to its formation when a guy named Teddy Roosevelt was in office.

“This union-backed attempt to turn student-athletes into employees undermines the purpose of college: an education,” according to a statement by the NCAA’s chief legal officer Donald Remy.

Sure, the purpose of college is an education, but that isn’t saying much at all and adds nothing to the issue at hand. It’s time for the NCAA to stop hiding behind that statement and address the modern intricacies of getting a college education and playing a sport while doing so.

To say that these student athletes are students first, thus disqualifying them from employee status is, to put it frankly, a joke.

I will follow Colter’s simple but poignant logic when I say that student athletes, or athlete students as they should be called, aren’t missing athletic events to attend class, and they aren’t being offered scholarships to perform in the classroom.

Their main charge, especially those who play sports that are nationally televised, is to help win and by doing so they will increase a school’s exposure, enrollment and most importantly, its financial gain.

Students who receive scholarships for their educational performance are allowed to work and make ends meet however possible, and often do so by getting academic or service jobs at the university itself. And like it or not, the students on academic scholarships tend to bring far less exposure to any given university.

And if you want to stick to the antiquated and naïve argument that student-athletes are paid in the form of a scholarship, fine. But they are still paid, technically making them employees and ultimately giving them the right to unionize. And what happens when they stop performing because of an injury or other circumstance? They stop getting ‘paid.’

Do I think student-athletes should get paid? Perhaps, but that’s not the point.

What’s more important is recognizing them for what they are – employees of the university and very valuable ones at that – and allowing them their right to unionize and actively participate in collective bargaining to better their situations at work.

The College Athletes Players Association said in a statement that it wants to collectively bargain for comprehensive reform. This reform includes seeking medical coverage for sports-related injuries to current and former athletes, requesting independent sideline concussion experts and uniform return to play rules, improving graduation rates and demanding due process rights when it comes to punishments for athletes.

But perhaps the scariest of all the collective bargaining goals is the part about “allowing players to receive compensation for commercial sponsorships.”

OK, I’ll admit that could be a very slippery slope that would ultimately lead to college football players requesting and probably receiving large paychecks, which would effectively turn NCAA football into the minor leagues of the NFL.

But let’s get real, isn’t it already the minor leagues of the NFL?

If you disagree, I refer you to the Johnny Manziel and Oklahoma State scandals from last season and the USC, Ohio State, SMU and multiple University of Miami scandals from seasons past (among others).

Officials from the ASU athletic department declined to comment on the issue, but my guess is that they, much like every other athletic department in the country, are hoping this can of worms stays as far away from our athletic department as possible.

As the CAPA puts it, “Currently, over $1.2 billion in NEW TV revenue is flooding NCAA sports. … NCAA sports has used a false notion of amateurism as a guise to siphon revenue that would otherwise be used to protect the college athletes, and NCAA policymakers are paid handsomely to make sure that the system does not change.”

If you ask me, it’s hard to argue with that.

 

Reach the columnist at npmendo@asu.edu or follow him on Twitter @NPMendoza