This week former Northwestern football player Kain Colter, along with labor leaders in Chicago, announced that the newly formed College Athletes Players Association is continuing to lead in the effort of unionizing college student athletes. While the issue of paying student athletes seems to be one of the reasons for the idea of unionizing, there may be even more here than just that, including protecting players from lifelong injuries that might impact their future careers and overall health and well-being.
Regardless of where you stand on the issue of paying student athletes, it was inevitable that the prospect of unionizing was on the horizon (it’s an issue I have written about several times in just the past year). While some feel that athletes are already “paid” through the opportunity to take free college classes, other critics maintain that the free school theory doesn’t hold much weight under closer scrutiny (hence the need for a unionization to help make things more fair). For one thing, many college football players today are casually persuaded into taking “dummy majors,” or degrees in fields that allow them to easily stay eligible, even if it leads to a degree with little or no value toward a viable future career. As their coaches make upwards of $10 million dollars a year in some cases, these student athletes are merely expected to stay eligible, not make the Deans List. Yes, it is true that some college football players still choose to take rigorous classes and challenging majors, but many others do not — largely because they were recruited to play football, and their sole focus is staying eligible (mainly so that they can have a chance at playing at the professional level one day).
The players are the product
College football players, ironically, actually hold all the weight in negotiations when you think about it. What I mean by this is if there ever comes a day where they band together and threaten to not play on a given Saturday, the entire NCAA revenue juggernaut dies in that moment. While colleges spend tens of millions of dollars on new facilities, equipment, and coach salaries, it is the student athletes who actually makes all of this go —- but in return they are provided a small stipend and the opportunity to take classes at a reduced fee (or free). Even in the best case scenario some feel this model is still very lopsided in favor of the NCAA and member schools.
There is no arguing that student athletes certainly enjoy many perks and benefits as student athletes, but when you place their net benefits against the totality of what colleges make from their efforts only then can you easily see why some are calling for a union to develop. If we are being honest, there’s nothing at all “amateur” about college football today, and hiding behind the free education model has turned into a very antiquated argument. College football is very big business, and the money generated is bigger than ever before seen. If we were to look at college football, for example, as really mini-professional football, then the players would make closer in earnings to what pro football players make.
And the debate continues…
I understand and respect both sides of this argument – the naysayers believe a free education is already a terrific deal, and the supporters of unionization believe that a fair deal encompasses much more than free tuition — especially when the life-long physical and cognitive risks are weighed in to the equation. Never before have college football players been the revenue-generators that they are today, as evidenced by the record breaking revenues the NCAA and related schools make each year. As such, it’s time to revisit the old college athletic scholarship model and make updates in 2014, whether that means a union or something else that is more fair and suited to today’s college athletic landscape.
Yes, free classes are nice, but I bet that if you asked a random sampling of college football players today whether they would like the free classes or the dollar amount of those classes in an annual check, I believe the vast majority would immediately take the money. The NCAA knows this, and that’s exactly why the cash option isn’t available. I don’t know what the perfect answer is to this question of college student athletes and getting paid is, but I know it’s somewhere between what we currently see (free or reduced tuition) vs. turning college sports into professional sports. The discussion of a union is a smart one for the players, and even if this idea is not adopted it may lead to more serious dialogue pertaining to bridging the current gap between the product (the players) and the benefactors (the colleges and college coaches).