Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter, when he's not under siege by defenders, says the NCAA is a dictatorship. (John T. Greilick / The Detroit News)
I was not surprised to hear that the United Steelworkers were helping athletes at Northwestern University to file a petition to form a union. Unions are seeking new industries to organize and college football, unlike steel, is not likely to be shipped overseas.
Nor was I surprised to hear Northwestern senior and former quarterback Kain Colter announce that he and his teammates had filed the petition. Like many other Americans, I used to revere the sacred virtues of amateurism in college sports. But it has become harder in recent years to distinguish those virtues from sheer exploitation of young athletes.
Colter called the NCAA “a dictatorship” as he and former UCLA football player Ramogi Huma, founder and president of the College Athletes Players Association, announced their petition in Chicago. That may be a stretch. Unlike dictatorships, college football players are not required to stay in the game.
But Donald Remy, NCAA chief legal officer, didn’t sound much more credible than Colter in his response statement: “This union-backed attempt to turn student-athletes into employees undermines the purpose of college — an education.”
In fact, anyone who has been paying attention knows that, if anyone has undermined that educational mission, it is the NCAA.
The message was conveyed with a deep sense of regret by none other than Walter Byers, the NCAA’s first and only executive director from 1951 to 1988, in his eye-opening and confessional 1997 memoir, “Unsportsmanlike Conduct: Exploiting the Student-Athlete.”
The very term “student-athlete,” he explained, was created to blunt the impact of a Colorado Supreme Court ruling in the early 1950s. A University of Denver football player, the court ruled, was an “employee” and therefore covered by the state’s worker’s compensation law.
“We crafted the term student-athlete,” Byers wrote, “and soon it was embedded in all NCAA rules and interpretations as a mandated substitute for such words as players and athletes.”
But this and other efforts by Byers to preserve virtuous amateurism ironically failed miserably with the mounting successes of his efforts to maximize NCAA profits.
“Today,” he wrote, “the NCAA Presidents Commission is preoccupied with tightening a few loose bolts in a worn machine, firmly committed to the neo-plantation belief that the enormous proceeds from college games belong to the overseers (administrators) and supervisors (coaches). The plantation workers performing in the arena may only receive those benefits authorized by the overseers.”
Student athletes already are paid, it has been argued, in the form of scholarships. The larger debate is over how much they should be paid and what benefits they should receive. Scholarships don’t cover the day-to-day cost of living for many players and the question of health care is increasingly urgent amid mounting news of the NFL’s concussion tragedies.
One thing the new union effort’s leaders are not asking for is pay-for-play. More important, they say, is a list of benefits to increase health and educational protections and benefits.
Asked by NPR’s Michel Martin whether he thought his activism would hurt his future prospects, Colter said he thought it actually might be an asset. “If anyone accused me of being a leader and looking out for my teammates, then I’m guilty,” he said.
Clarence Page writes for the Chicago Tribune.