College football players are beginning to use their voice, a tool that has been repressed since the term "student-athlete" came into the vernacular.
On Tuesday, a group of Northwestern players, led by quarterback Kain Colter, took the first step in what will be a major effort to be recognized as university employees. With the help of Ramogi Huma, the creator of the National College Players Association, an undisclosed number of players filed paperwork with the National Labor Relations Board in an attempt to form a union called the College Athletes Players Association.
Tom Farrey of ESPN's Outside the Lines first reported the story.
"This is about finally giving college athletes a seat at the table," said Huma, a former UCLA linebacker who created the NCPA as an advocacy group in 2001. "Athletes deserve an equal voice when it comes to their physical, academic and financial protections."
Therein lies an important point of clarification: This is not, at the moment, a demand for pay-for-play. In fact, nowhere in the NCPA's platform is the term pay-for-play, or any variation of it, used. Rather, the crux of the agenda focuses on ensuring that athletes are taken care of through better medical coverage, scholarship protection and on-field safety measures.
These are things to which every athlete should be entitled. If the cut-and-paste statement from the NCAA is any indication, though, it surely isn't going to oblige. That's why Northwestern's players are going through third-party representation.
Say, hypothetically, that attempts to unionize are successful (it is a rather convoluted and laborious process, so to speak). The next question is whether football players will strike if their demands aren't met.
First, understand that strikes don't require unions and unions don't necessarily mean strikes.
In October, Grambling State football players famously started a boycott by deciding they would not play against Jackson State because of poor "working" conditions. Grambling ultimately forfeited the game.
Strikes are risky for players, however, especially for those who have professional aspirations (which is to say, most to all of them). Though only a small percentage of players will realize that dream, missing games could nevertheless be costly—literally and figuratively speaking—to them.
The NFL doesn't have a minor league; it has college football, a semi-professional sport stuck in an academic arena. Sitting out a few games, let alone a full season, is a leap players must be willing to take.
Not all may be willing to take it.
But there's a major factor that acts as a safety net. If players are ruled to be university employees, they will be able to unionize. Therefore, they would at least have the protection of collective bargaining power. (There are potentially several different sets of rules for this, which would be applied to public and private universities from state to state under labor laws.)
Under collective bargaining, athletes would have more power and leverage than ever before. Then again, student-athletes have zero power or leverage, so the bar isn't exactly set high.
As a legally protected union ... you can engage in a statutorily protected strike to try to get ownership or management to give in to some of your demands. If this occurs, the result will be memorialized in a "collective bargaining agreement," which is essentially a giant contract between the employer and employees that lays out the terms and conditions of employment. There, the end would justify the means.
College football players risk head and limb every Saturday during the fall in exchange for what the NCAA claims is proper compensation: an education.
This union-backed attempt to turn student-athletes into employees undermines the purpose of college: an education.— Inside the NCAA (@InsidetheNCAA) January 28, 2014
Of course, the NCAA conveniently fails to mention that one of its members, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, admitted to academic misconduct "for years."
The NCAA also fails to mention that an education doesn't pay for medical bills for a head injury sustained during a game that should have had an NCAA-employed doctor on the sideline.
It's not a fair trade-off, and it hasn't been since college football evolved into a multi-billion-dollar business while athlete benefits remained static.
Are issues like those worth starting a strike over?
No one will know for sure until a ruling on a student-athletes' title is made at the federal level—and that could be a year or more down the road.
But let's put it this way: The NCAA and its member institutions have run college football as a business while failing to consult those who play it on how it should be run. Tired of the status quo, athletes have begun to make their voices heard.
What makes anyone think they're going to stay quiet if they receive employment status?
If athletes eventually do strike, what if it's season-long? Television executives, universities, local businesses, fans and even media alike will clamor and shout for things to resume.
Who will be the self-serving ones then?
Ben Kercheval is the lead writer for Big 12 football. All quotes obtained firsthand unless noted otherwise.