By Robert Husseman • Sports Editor • 

Still on his Feet: Yes, unionize college sports

I like to talk football, and my cousin doesn’t mind. By all rights, he could be sick of the sport, but he’s willing to answer my questions.

My cousin spent two seasons as a football player at a Football Bowl Subdivision school – a private and academically rigorous one, not unlike Northwestern University. That college has the attention of the nation after a group of its football players, led by former quarterback Kain Colter, won a case put before the Chicago chapter of the National Labor Relations Board that classified Northwestern football players as employees of the school and enabled them to join a union for bargaining purposes.

What happens going forward is anybody’s guess, and it brings me back to my time covering University of Oregon football for the Oregon Daily Emerald student newspaper and to my cousin’s words. The last time I saw him, I asked him what kind of hours he put into football.

“Fifty hours a week,” he replied. “Like having a full-time job.”

What goes into those 50 hours a week? Practice, for one – be it in T-shirts and shorts or in full pads. Then weight training and other strength and conditioning work. Then injury rehabilitation or equivalent measures. Then film study – the more the better, but it’s a time-consuming process. Then meetings – college football coaches love their meetings – with position groups, offense, defense, special teams or full-team meetings. Don’t even think about letting your attention stray.

But wait, there’s more! Nutrition is an important element of college football, and players must frequent the training table to replenish their bodies. (Walk-ons like my cousin are not permitted access to the training table, according to National Collegiate Athletic Association rules.) Schools are increasingly providing their players with nutritionists or other counselors; more meetings on the schedule. There are still more meetings with tutors and academic counselors because yes, Virginia, the boys have to go to school! That’s why we gave them 85 full-ride scholarships in the first place. That normally requires attending class (the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill exempted), so add that to the list.

Got all that? Wait till you see the employee handbook.

Football players are required to sign statements, crafted by the NCAA and disseminated by compliance officers, encouraging them to follow the rules of their school’s governing body while also allowing the school (and governing body) to profit from their likeness when they see fit. They may live on campus or off campus, as long as the head coach and football staff approve of their living arrangements. They may have social media accounts, as long as they agree to be monitored by either school representatives or private companies contracted by the school to monitor the players. They must wear certain clothes to specific events, perform any number of hours of community service and set their academic schedules around their football requirements.

The reward for jumping through these hoops – performing in the classroom and on the football field – is that coveted full-ride scholarship, but, well, even that can be taken away without recourse. A 2010 article in the Wall Street Journal noted that Alabama head coach Nick Saban had offered 12 players a “medical” scholarship over a four-year span. The players had suffered injuries significant enough to require medical attention, but they believed that their on-field performance hadn’t suffered enough to warrant an early retirement from the sport.

No matter. Coach is boss.

And football players are employees. That last aspect of college football has been kept under wraps. All that sacrifice, conventional wisdom dictates, is necessary for the greater good and the rewards will justify the effort.

Northwestern football players are calling bull moose to that line of logic.

The College Athletes Players Association – the name of the nascent union the Northwestern players have aligned with – has centered on a few bones to pick with the NCAA, namely the full cost of college scholarships, medical expenses for student-athletes and proper protection for injured student-athletes. Guaranteed four-year scholarships would satisfy the union to an extent. (They’re not guaranteed right now, you may ask? Not by many universities, including Oregon and Oregon State.) The Northwestern players want to recover from injuries on their own volition, not based on the schedule and what tough teams are coming up. No player wants to be the next Ereck Plancher, the former UCF wide receiver who died during a 2008 practice in which his family alleged wrongful death on the part of the school. (The Plancher family won a $10 million judgment in the Florida courts that was later reduced to $200,000 on appeal by UCF.)

To unionize college football players is to ask the question: are we getting enough out of our experience? To be sure, full tuition at a top academic institution is a valuable commodity. However, colleges like UNC-Chapel Hill, which steered football and basketball players toward no-show, guaranteed-A classes, remove any real value from the educational experience until just the name brand is left. That satisfies many but makes for poor citizens underneath the sheepskin.

The top of college football is changing, and with it the entire structure of college sports. By the end of this era, college sports will not be the same. Nor will our impression of the student-athletes at places like Georgia or Texas or Oregon State, and that is for the best.

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