Northwestern student athlete efforts to unionize could be a game changer

The biggest football story yesterday came out of Chicago, not New Jersey. It wasn’t around the best teams in professional football, but rather an average team of amateurs. And ultimately, this story may end up being the biggest sports story of the year.

Yesterday a group of Northwestern players began the process of forming a labor union. They’re hoping to be recognized as employees of their university rather than the student-athletes they currently are.

Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter reached out to National College Players Association President, and 2001 UCLA linebacker Ramogi Huma, to help he and his fellow teammates earn athlete representation. He felt that they deserved to have better rights than current NCAA rules provide.

The players will be fighting for these rights, and to formally unionize, under an entity called the College Athletes Players Association (CAPA). Their main demand is to better the current medical conditions offered to collegiate athletes. Typically, those that defend the NCAA and argue that student athletes get a free education, forget that these athletes can lose their scholarships if they get hurt and can no longer perform. CAPA would work to change that, as well as give players better concussion protection; a very relevant demand considering the new information we continue to learn about head injuries’ effect on football players.

Their main argument – that they’re already treated like employees already, and should be compensated as such – is a valid one. Between mandatory meetings, practice, games, and travel — in addition to a traditional college workload – participating in a sport is a full-time job. For football players, there’s little time or opportunity to find additional work outside of their sport…a sport that currently generates more than $5 billion for the major conferences alone.

“Players are not complaining about this arrangement,” [National Labor Relations Board National Political Director Tim] Waters said of the 40-plus-hour work weeks being devoted by players to their sport. “They’re just calling it what it is — pay for play.”

A case like this could take years to resolve. It’s possible that Coulter and his teammates will never get the opportunity to reap the benefits of their work.

In the bigger picture though, it doesn’t matter. Just forcing discussion on amateurism in collegiate sports at the legal level is a game-changer. Said legal analyst Lester Munson:

“…the Wildcats’ effort to establish a union may not accomplish exactly what the players wanted to accomplish, but actions by the players are part of a historic process that could change the face of college sports.”

CAPA is not demanding students be paid…yet. But that would almost certainly be the next request. College football television deals continue to skyrocket, university athletic apparel garners millions, and NCAA executives continue to cash million dollar paychecks, while 18 to 22 year-olds – adults by every definition – are still forced to play for free and be happy with the free education.

Northwestern isn’t a powerhouse football school. It’s known for academics. Colter and his teammates know what the implications of their action will have on their careers, and the careers of future players moving forward. Clearly, the debate over whether athletes should be paid and given more benefits has become loud enough that Colter feels that the time is now to try to make change.

Regardless of the eventual outcome, this is a major story with legs. legal analyst Michael McCann sees Northwestern as just the first of many schools and players who will look to unionize:

“I think others will join. I think we’ll see other schools do this. They’re smart, the folks that are doing this. I’m speculating, but I think there will be a trickle effect. I suspect every couple of weeks, we’ll see a new school join. That’ll revisit this topic over and over again, and it’ll give the impression that there is growing support for it.”

Discussion will continue whether student-athletes deserve better compensation, and thanks to Colter and his teammates, that discussion may finally lead to a resolution.

Even if they lose, just elevating that discussion is a major victory.

Follow Stefen Lovelace on Twitter @StefenLovelace.