Doug Robinson: Doug Robinson: A union for college athletes

Published: Tuesday, Feb. 4 2014 6:20 p.m. MST

Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter, second from left, speaks while College Athletes Players Association President Ramogi Huma left, United Steelworkers union official Tim Waters, second from right, and Steelworkers President Leo Gerard listen during a news conference in Chicago, Tuesday, Jan., 28, 2014. Football players at Northwestern University are forming what they say is a first-of-its-kind union for college athletes. Wildcat quarterback Kain Coulter joined union leaders at the press conference to announce the creation of the College Athletes Players Association. (AP Photo/Paul Beaty)


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Northwestern University football players recently announced they are attempting to create a union for college athletes.

It’s not exactly Norma Rae standing up on the factory floor for better work conditions. To the average student, who is delivering pizza at night and still has to borrow money for his education, it’s a tough sell.

But something stinks about the way the NCAA treats its athletes, and change is in the air.

The Northwestern players hope a union will bring better medical coverage, minimize the risks of brain injuries, and allow players certain rights afforded to other Americans, such as being able to earn a living any way legal under the law, whether its selling their shoes, accepting money for a bag of groceries or using their name or image for commercial purposes.

This is an uphill battle; there is precedent that establishes student-athletes as just that, not employees of the university, and therefore they can’t form a labor union. The Northwestern players have petitioned the National Labor Relations Board for union representation as the College Athletes Players Association, with the backing and assistance of the United Steel Workers.

The NCAA’s official response:

“This union-backed attempt to turn student-athletes into employees undermines the purpose of college: an education.”

Stop. Right. There. Does the NCAA really want to go down that road? Talk about hypocrisy. If the purpose of college is education, then why are universities becoming football corporations with schools attached? Why are they paying coaches millions of dollars and negotiating lucrative TV contracts and sponsorships and selling merchandise and spending millions on stadiums and weight rooms and athlete lounges?

This stopped being about education years ago.

The NCAA generates more than $16 billion just in TV contracts for football and basketball. Forbes magazine listed college football’s biggest money makers — the University of Texas boasts, $96 million and a profit of $71 million; Notre Dame $72M/$47M; Penn State $73M/$53M; LSU $69M/$47M; and Michigan ($70M/$47M).

Everyone — coaches, schools, sponsors, networks, shoe companies, bowls — is cashing in except players. The players are denied even the right to use their own name or image for gain. In fact, most football players can’t even hold a full-time summer job — according to NCAA rules, coaches can’t require players to remain at school for summer conditioning, but they make it clear they better be there or else.

Football players are controlled in every way. They can’t even change schools without paying an NCAA-mandated penalty. The NCAA is all-powerful and players are denied even basic due process — NCAA decisions (and sanctions) are final. Less than 20 years ago the NCAA wouldn’t even allow student-athletes to work during the school year, and they are still limited on how much they can earn with an outside job. The NCAA’s hypocrisy has no limits: Johnny Manziel and Ohio State football players are suspended for selling or trading autographs and jerseys, but the NCAA does both.

Contrary to legal definition, the players work a full-time job for the school’s team. A study conducted by the NCAA itself revealed that FBS football players spend an average of 43.3 hours a week playing or training for football (39.2 hours for basketball players). A scholarship, in most cases, doesn't even cover basic living expenses.

“The No. 1 thing that I want to accomplish is to finally give athletes a true voice," Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter told Yahoo Sports. "They need to finally have a seat at the table when rules and regulations are determined. They need an entity in place that can negotiate on the players' behalf and have their best interests in mind."

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