Being a sports fan, I may be expected to cheer the recent ruling (NLRB) that gave surprise victory to the College Athletes Players Association (CAPA), former Northwestern footballer Kain Colter and his ‘mates in their application to unionize as employees of the school.
Well, hold your horses. First, an analogy:
Say that a man extends his hand and helps a fallen pedestrian to his feet, urged on, not by a legal duty to render aide (MD, police), but from a simple, random act of kindness. Such an act of selfless humanity, I would praise.
But that ain’t this. My answer: no, I don’t applaud the ruling.
This one packs a mixed bag of emotions.
Kain et al’s effort to unionize Wildcat football players looks to be a little more than a self-serving, re-distribution of campus monies among some of the most privileged members of our society, the players.
Though this application differs in circumstance, (educational) setting and does not seek pay-for-play (costs & compensations) but asks for the right to collectively bargain, it does harken back to Curt Flood and his game-changing lawsuit (‘72). That action aimed to put the kibosh on MLB’s “anomaly” antitrust exemption and reserve clause, and though his request for injunction was denied it did open the door to free agency (Flood v. Kuhn).
From its earliest days in the late 1890s, the concept of the amateur, student-athlete had been pretty well received with few gripes from player or public.
Schools made some money, the pep & play energized campus & community, players could get an education if they so choosed, were treated as royalty, some got a royal stipend and those who didn’t go pro got a career boost if they played their cards right.
But ever since college big-wigs began grabbing with both hands (90s), playing fast & loose with tradition and getting drunk with dollars made off the games every which way, public trust has dropped and the mood among athletes has changed.
We’re all selfish to one degree or another, it’s part of living, part of survival. From their perspective, what Colter & Co. are doing seems prudent enough. Good business sense.
And depending on the legal end-game here, the NLRB ruling could prove a watershed event in the big business of college football & men’s basketball.
It could also open a Pandora’s Box, unleashing a slew of changes upon the college sport scene where the games and their trappings, as ever-changing as they are today, might be unrecognizable in 2044.
First off, while the Evanston applicants ask only costs and contributions, a union might prove the first mile on the road to play-for pay, while CAPA’s reach could also eventually extend into other sports on campus, men and women’s, both.
The ruling could force changes in how schools finance their operations, give an excuse to open new lines of business, adversely affect marginal sports and charities, coaching style, recruitment and maybe even the play on the field by emboldening players. This last one could be a curse, or cure, if coach happens to be a Bo Pelini or Frank Martin rage-a-holic.
The possible ramifications are plentiful.
But make no mistake, what these men are doing is not brave and it’s not socially progressive, though, the limelight could seat Kain in Congress one day. Bully for him.
Not having descended from the landed gentry my instinct is to side with the players, pro & amateur, in any pursuit that seeks a voice, some leverage, fair compensation or share of the loot. Greed & power unchecked are “baaaaad (“The Monster”)!”
Then I ask, how does Stevie benefit from this legal play? How does my community, my State, my nation benefit if amateurism flies out the window? I don’t see it.
And the players, they’ve been on a pedestal since junior high. You could spend 4 years on campus and not once catch a glimpse of the starry student-athlete like those named in CAPA’s labor filing. They don’t hang with the student body, not publicly, anyway.
Do I read jealous? Not really, just tired of the excess privilege, the arrogance that permeates that world (See: “College Football‘s Powdered Wigs“ / SI (Fannation) / 6-12-12 / SK).
Now some athletes want more, now they want a piece of that sport-revenue pie that college elite, coaches and assorted ancillary interests (TV, merchandisers, boosters, etc.) have been feasting upon for years. They got jam all over.
So who can blame ‘em, these jocks from Evanston w/ lawyers out front?
Big-time campus athletes are mollycoddled, to be sure, but they certainly see the money we all read about and that’s being generated, in part, due to their own efforts.
The standard spew from Joe-Six Pack: ‘Forget them, those guys get a free-ride, an education, that’s payment enough.’ And that would be balderdash.
Everyone and their grandmother has a degree today, nothing distinguishing there.
The business of higher-ed has never been better with enrollments high. They’re crankin’ out grads like widgets, or doo-hickeys (a no-no in University of Georgia’s CoC: no “hickys (sic) / passion marks (“Report“ / CBS-ATL / 3-26 / Fearnow)).”
But w/out a job connection from family, fraternity or professor, that degree is just so much framed paper with loan-debt bearing down like a locomotive.
Just don’t call this in-house, re-distribution of assets, altruistic.
It has no more broad, social benefit than Mike Sam’s draft-enhancing proclamation on his homosexual orientation. Given recent comment (Vincent / Sanders), gay teammates are an NFL commonality, well known and a privacy well respected…one of the few.
If the ruling survives (appeal?), NU player-employees act in union, other school squads form collectives, public institutions afford similar benefits to stay viable (recruiting) and such athletes receive their costs & compensations, you don’t need an MBA to foresee who’ll foot the bill in fee hikes and the like: fans, students & parents are who.
And don’t think for a second that college elite would part with one thin dime of their take to cover any re-distribution costs. No sir-ee, Bob.
Fans have been handed “the fuzzy end of the lollipop (Monroe)” for decades now, when any greed-driven change is forced upon the games, i.e., conference-jumpers, D1 college football playoff, TV late-nighters, bowl sponsorship, etcetera.
Flood, who oughta’ be plaqued in Cooperstown, showed the way for stars like M. Cabrera who just signed a whopping 8y, $248M ext’n with Detroit. Owners must be rollin’ in it.
The referees are the same but Colter & Co. played in a different league than Flood, and as such, he and his co-applicants come into court with a very different grocery list.
Kain seeks hot dogs & beer (C & C) while Curt’s legal quest would serve up a veritable Babette’s Feast (‘87) to the pro-set who’d soon be suckin’ down the quail bones with end of the reserve clause and start of free agency. Ironically, Curt never got to chow down.
I haven’t warmed up yet to the marriage of college athletes & unions, ‘something about her parents.’ I do appreciate why they went to the alter, how we all got to this point.
Blame rests squarely on the cashmere covered shoulders of those men and women who operate, oversee & profit mightily off of big-time college sport. The forewarning was there for decades as paying college players is old topic. But boards of regents, trustees did nothing. Through their boundless greed the seeds of discontent were planted and grew in the minds of players (Northwestern) who apparently had had enough and labor lawyers welcomed with open arms. Welcome to Mr. Flood’s world, horsy set.
Just answer me one question. I must spend 10-20 hour per week on sport, one way or another, who’s ever gonna’ unionize fans?
Photo: Curt Flood, Denny McLain & Ted Williams / Washington Senators / 1971
About the Author
Written by Steven Keys
A native of the old Northwest Territory (IL), my wife and I have lived in four Midwestern states and Arizona. Today we live in Duluth, Georgia. I have a history / legal background.