Commentary: Northwestern's move to unionize college athletes shows that it's time for a football minor league

Published: Thursday, April 3 2014 5:15 p.m. MDT

From left, former Northwestern University football quarterback Kain Colter, Ramogi Huma, founder and President of the National College Players Association and Tim Waters, Political Director of the United Steel Workers, arrive on Capitol Hill in Wednesday, April, 2, 2014.

Lauren Victoria Burke, Associated Press

In the wake of the decision by the National Labor Relations Board in Chicago to allow athletes at Northwestern to unionize, the time has come to consider forming a minor league for football.

While this case is far from over, and we're in for years of legal debate and quite possibly new legislation, the writing is on the wall for college football in particular. The current path college football is taking, and that appears to include paying players more than just a scholarship, is simply unsustainable.

Paying college athletes anywhere close to what players would undoubtedly (and not entirely unreasonably) feel that they are worth would destroy college athletics as we know it. According to USA Today, just 23 of the 228 Division I level public school programs generated enough money in 2012 to cover their own expenses, and 16 of those 23 programs applied for some sort of government subsidy. Putting the extra strain of playing players would cause many universities to drop football or even their entire athletic program.

Plus if universities have to consider college athletes employees, the Affordable Care Act requires that they either keep the number of hours these athletes work to under 29 or provide health care for them. That's even more expenses for already-strained athletic budgets. Of course, this would have to be applied across the board to all student athletes.

The easiest unintended consequence to spot has to do with Title IX. By federal law, every university that receives federal funding (and, for all intents and purposes, that's all of them) must spend the same amount of money on male athletes as female athletes. Even if universities broke away from the NCAA, they wouldn't be able to avoid this federal law.

Most athletic departments already struggle with balancing ballooning football budgets against Title IX. To comply with Title IX, many schools have simply cut smaller revenue men's teams such as soccer and wrestling. Adding the additional burden of having to pay 85 football scholarship players any sort of salary would leave these programs with essentially two choices:

Either they must cut most if not all other men's athletic teams, or they'll have to simply drop football to comply with Title IX. Either way, the number of football programs would greatly diminish. Even schools that have plenty of money would struggle to keep men's teams other than football and basketball.

Even without this whole unionization mess, college football has frankly grown too massive for its own good. Universities were not founded and do not exist primarily for college athletics. Their primary purpose is to educate people, or at least that what they should be about.

We've seen unbelievable examples of the tail wagging the proverbial dog over the past few years. While people were shocked that Joe Paterno was in any way involved in covering up for convicted child molester Jerry Sandusky, what's even more telling is the fact that former university president Graham Spainer is facing charges for covering up Sandusky's heinous crimes. While we still don't know how far Penn State employees went to cover for Sandusky's actions, what we do know is that he did in fact abuse young boys on university property and Penn State employees knew about it.

The primary reason why no one put a stop to Sandusky preying on innocent young children was that such a revelation would damage the football program. If that's not a prime example of the tail wagging the dog, I don't know what is.

The Sandusky example aside, what message would paying college athletes send to your average student? While these unionized football players would be paid tens of thousands of dollars above receiving a free education, your average student graduated with more than $35,000 in student loan and credit card debt in 2013, according to CNN. As the cost for attending college continue to rise, why should your average student have to subsidize in part with their college tuition the salary of other students who happen to play football?

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