I’ve been following the Northwestern University football players story with growing interest. In case you haven’t, the National Labor Relations Board has ruled that this university’s football players who are scholarship students can be regarded as employees of the university and are entitled to vote on whether to unionize. The players have just voted, in secret, as of this writing, and their decision will become known in a few months.
Northwestern University, the NCAA, the university coaching staff and alumni players, non-players and others have lobbied hard to get the N.L.R.B. decision overturned and to get the players to vote “no” to unionization. As “employees” and (God forbid) union members, these players would have access to Workers’ Compensation, expanded and formalized benefits and be (gulp!) entitled to share in the revenue generated by the football program. The university has predicted that a decision by the players to unionize would lead to everything from abandoning the plans for a $24 million sports complex to the end of the football program itself. The school’s stated position is the players are, first and foremost, students, not employees. Northwestern has not threatened to revoke any player scholarships – not yet, anyway.
And yet again the real message is massaged, repackaged and couched in bullshit. It’s all about the money. Does anyone not realize this? NCAA football programs not only invest colleges and universities with prestige, they bring in millions of dollars to the school. How else could Northwestern build a $24 million dollar sports complex? The very fact that the university used the cancellation of the complex as a threat only shows the poverty of their position – the huge price tag they quoted only proves the dollar value of football to the university.
And where does all that revenue originate? On the backs of the football players. Where do the huge salaries paid to football coaches and university presidents come from? Mostly from the efforts of 18, 19, 20 and 21 year old adolescents playing football.
The media picked up this story and ran it to the end zones morning noon and night. This amuses me because it makes this issue seem unique and it certainly is not.
Based on just being awake in America, it’s not hard to come to the conclusion that great wealth is generated on the effort of many people who do not share equitably in that wealth. This is true in, for example, the fast food industry where billions of dollars are generated based on the efforts of workers making the minimum wage. It’s also true in real estate, an industry I happen to know quite well, where agents are “independent contractors” without any beneficial relationship to the companies who rake in millions of dollars based on the efforts of these workers without giving them anything more than a portion of the commission they earn and nothing if they don’t sell, while management enjoys health and retirement benefits, paid vacations, sick days and a weekly salary. How about the millions of office workers, clerical staff and support positions in this country who, without any collective bargaining agreements, buttress the fortunes of the largest corporations in the country? Waiters, waitresses and bartenders who work long and back breaking hours and who keep the food and beverage industry afloat are paid hardly anything and must rely on the unreliable generosity of customers in the form of tips. And what about states that, by law, prohibit their government workers from initiating collective bargaining agreements?
It’s a popular point of view to bash unions as the refuge of unskilled freeloaders who don’t want to work but want all the benefits the unions demand. I’ve worked in a number of union positions in my varied careers and I can tell you that the union members I saw were among the most skilled, motivated and hardest working people I’ve ever encountered. The only reason unions exist at all is a reaction to management who took advantage of or mis-treated their workers in the checkered industrial past of this country. The actors’ union Actors Equity, for example, was formed in reaction to producers who would close touring shows and abandon actors, stranding them hundreds of miles from home. Workers in all types of industries who attempted to organize in order to be treated fairly have been harassed, fired and even beaten in our shameful labor relations history and it happens to this day. I have seen, firsthand, how workers are coerced or cajoled into working too long and too hard for too little. Even when unions are present, I have seen bosses try to bend the rules, try to subvert the very agreements they have sworn to uphold.
What happens if a scholarship football player is injured and can’t play? Does he lose his scholarship? Currently, that’s at the whim of the university. Who pays for that player’s medical care following an injury? What can college football players expect in terms of working conditions in the 40-50 hours a week they devote to playing and practicing? And does it seem equitable that a school makes millions of dollars on the sweat of these immature and impressionable young men and they get nothing more than the right to attend that university and a vague promise that an NFL scout might notice them? There have been rumors for years that elite NCAA players get secret “perks”. Even if true, it pales in comparison to the school’s reward. The university’s position that these are students, not employees is given the lie by virtue of any secret “perks” given to the players by the school. These incentives most often have a dollar value and are often rumored to be outright cash payments. And the argument that these players are amateurs holds no water since they are not treated as such, but, rather, are held to rigorous standards of conditioning, practice and performance and the expectations of all their football boosters and fans are that they will perform at a peak level of perfection. Football defines many universities, is of huge importance to their on and off campus communities, and is not viewed as a friendly, learning process, but, rather, a must win situation where championships are expected and become the very definition of the athletic programs.
I am not a Communist, a Marxist, a Socialist or even a reliable Democrat. Communism and Marxism were (and still are) unrealistic utopian dreams whose intentions are perverted by good-old human greed, power-lust, corruption, imperialism and stupidity. I don’t believe people are entitled to something for nothing but I do think people should share in the profits they are responsible for in an equitable fashion. Workers should be rewarded more in line with the results they produce.
Northwestern is a private university. That’s the only reason the N.L.R.B. had the authority to make a ruling and the only reason the players have the option to unionize. Many state universities with large athletic programs are watching this issue with trepidation. What happens if private school players begin unionizing and state school players are either forbidden to by existing state law or it becomes a political issue as state legislatures have to rule on these players becoming state employees by scholarship?
No one knows if the Northwestern players decided to organize. The story has disappeared from the news since the vote. These young men, some of whose scholarships are the only alternative to a life of grinding poverty and mean streets, are urged, again and again, by their adult mentors to be loyal to their school and team. They must decide whether or not to take some ownership of their efforts. If they don’t, it will be a defeat, in my view, for fairness and a victory for greed.