Nick Saban Speaks out on Collegiate Athletes Having the Ability to Unionize

Matt FitzgeraldCorrespondent IIIMarch 31, 2014

Alabama head coach Nick Saban talks to reporters after practice for the Jan. 2 Sugar Bowl NCAA college football game against Oklahoma, in New Orleans on Saturday, Dec. 28, 2013. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)
Gerald Herbert

Alabama Crimson Tide head coach Nick Saban knows what it takes to build a successful college football program. Between his hard-nosed attitude and relentless pursuit of perfection through what he calls, "The Process," Saban has had raging success in Tuscaloosa and throughout his coaching career.

What drives those exceptional results are the players he coaches, and part of Saban's process at Alabama is ensuring the young men he coaches have a quality collegiate experience.

In a Monday report by Alex Scarborough of, Saban expressed support for the Northwestern football team's recent efforts to be considered qualified employees and unionize:

I've always been an advocate of players being compensated the best that we can to help them. Whatever the NCAA rule is and whatever they decide to do, I've always been an advocate of the player and the quality of life that a player has. I think that having a voice in what happens, I think, is something that the players probably ought to have.

But the renowned coach didn't say outright that the Wildcats players should be paid as employees, implying that funds could be alternatively allocated to meet their needs:

We can't pay them but we can reinvest in trying to help them be successful in their future, which I think we do a marvelous job here at the University of Alabama. I think a lot of people do. I think that's what makes great programs. I think that's why players want to come and be a part of the program, because we do reinvest in the future and their chances of being successful, and we do care. And it's not just about football.

Saban also took time to further outline what the Tide do to take care of their own student-athletes, both on the gridiron and in the classroom:

On a per-player basis, what we invest in the player to try to help them be successful. We spent like $600,000 last year on personal development programs -- all things that directly affect the player having a chance to be successful. I can't even tell you what our academic support budget is, trying to invest in a player and what is the value of him getting an education and graduating from school here?

According to's Tom Farrey, representatives for Northwestern's bid to unionize are headed to Congress to present their case. Outspoken ESPN analyst Colin Cowherd provided his analysis:

Jane McManus of showed a little more support, applauding Northwestern's approach to the matter:

This is obviously a serious issue, so it's commendable that Saban was willing to speak at length about it—even if he didn't take a firm position and spun the issue in a positive light for Alabama.

However, a noteworthy factor in all of this is how well paid Saban himself is. No doubt he worked hard to be as prolific as he is and rack up national championships, but Saban's latest deal, struck in December 2013, pays him an average of $7 million per season through 2020. That makes him the No. 4 highest-paid coach in American sports.

In the context of that massive disparity between his contract and whatever value even a full-ride scholarship offers, it's hard to imagine that Tide players would mind a little extra monetary compensation—along with many other NCAA athletes. That's what makes this case involving Northwestern so critical, but it does seem as though Saban has a point.

So does Stanford head coach David Shaw, who questions the importance of Northwestern's unionization movement, per the Associated Press (via

I'm as confused as anybody as to the importance of this. I'm curious what's really driving it. I've seen everything, and everything that's been asked for, my understanding is it's been provided. I think Northwestern does a phenomenal job providing for their kids, and it's weird to try to unionize but still compliment Northwestern and compliment their coaching staff on being taken care of. Those things don't seem to go hand in hand.

Granting a player a scholarship gives that individual a golden opportunity to thrive, and some players wouldn't have had the chance to attend college otherwise. Whether or not a scholarship accounts enough for external expenses and overall quality of life is another matter that is up for debate.

There is something to be said for the NCAA profiting immensely off of the work many of its athletes put in—and for coaches who make so much more than players. In that sense, it's hard to argue with student-athletes who are struggling to get by in their current situations, despite the lavish life a scholarship purports to promise.

Saban's comments should keep the unionization and compensation issues for NCAA athletes as a prominent presence in the headlines. Whatever happens and however the case is ruled will establish a strong precedent, so the process leading up to the landmark decision is worth continual monitoring.