The intricate battle between student-athletes and universities over the right to unionize and collectively bargain will be a long one. However, if Tuesday's National Labor Relations Board hearing was any indication, universities—in this case, Northwestern—"won" Round 1.
To fire back, the College Athletes Players Association (CAPA) could use a player who represents what is wrong with the status quo. And there may not be a more intriguing example than Texas quarterback David Ash.
Ash sustained a concussion in a Week 2 loss to BYU last season. After being sidelined for the following game against Ole Miss—he was advised by doctors to stay home as a precaution—Ash was back in action against Kansas State.
However, Ash did not finish the game because of lingering symptoms, and his season was ultimately cut short. Even if he was cleared to play at the time, it's clear now that Ash returned from his injury too soon.
That's prime ammo for the unionizing platform. The National College Players Association, which teamed up with Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter, calls for better safety guidelines and more comprehensive medical coverage for athletes, among other things.
With concussions being a hot-button issue, CAPA could point to Ash as an example of the NCAA and its members failing to adequately monitor the well-being of their athletes.
The vibe from Tuesday's hearing is Northwestern, and to a lesser extent, Colter, aren't ideal examples for CAPA because they can be viewed as proof of why the status quo works. This was expressed by B/R's Big Ten writer Andy Coppens, ESPN's Big Ten reporter Adam Rittenberg and Teddy Greenstein of the Chicago Tribune.
From Greenstein's article:
But here is CAPA’s problem: In trying to show that players are being mistreated, the organization targeted a school that cares enough about academics to have a half-dozen players show up at Iowa on the morning of the Nov. 1 game so they could stay in Evanston an extra day to take a test.
And CAPA chose a legitimate student-athlete who is graduating a quarter early with a psychology degree and has interned in wealth management at Goldman Sachs. Wermuth argued Colter landed the internship with help from his Northwestern mentor — and benefited from academic assistance from NU tutors that non-athletes cannot access.
Of course, just because there's a shining example of the system working doesn't mean it can't be improved. As Kevin Trahan of USA Today writes, "CAPA's argument is not that the university has mistreated its players. Rather, the argument is that the university has no obligation to treat its players well, and that more can be done without breaking NCAA rules."
Medical coverage is deregulated by the NCAA. Under a union, collective bargaining would demand that head injuries, like the one Ash suffered, receive universal reform.
The key question, of course, is whether Ash would want to be a voice for that movement. Colter, the unofficial spokesperson for CAPA, has wrapped up his playing career with the Wildcats and graduates in March with a degree in psychology. The risk of him speaking out is nonexistent.
Ash, on the other hand, should have two years of eligibility remaining with a medical redshirt. Being an active player who also serves as a spokesperson for a movement of this magnitude would be unprecedented.
It would also be a different fight if Ash wanted to push for employee status. Since Texas is a public institution, its employees are governed by state law. Northwestern, a private institution, falls under the NLRB.
Still, Ash is a high-profile player at a so-called football factory. That's exactly the type of catalyst for change CAPA wants. If Ash hypothetically showed the same eagerness as Colter for unionization, he should be one of the first people CAPA calls to advance its movement.
Ben Kercheval is the lead writer for Big 12 football. All quotes obtained firsthand unless noted otherwise.