Over the weekend, I stumbled upon a conversation between two gentlemen at the gym. Each was no younger than 40 and older than 55. The topic of their treadmill-strolling discussion centered on Northwestern and the possibility of players unionizing.
Had you started eavesdropping 20 seconds after I tuned in, you could have assumed that they were discussing the end of days, or even worse, prohibition.
That's how quickly the tone set and stayed its course.
"This will be catastrophic," the man said, firing up the treadmill nearest to mine. "The sport will be doomed," the other responded, changing the channel on the small television just a few feet from his face.
Not once were the actual issues of the matter addressed. One of the two referred to Northwestern football head coach Pat Fitzgerald as Sam Fitzgerald, but that didn't disrupt this game of doomsday ping-pong. It continued—deepened, even.
As they continued voicing their displeasure, they didn't care to touch on the important parts of the conversation that unionization hoped to address—things like scholarship protection, health care and some of the life-after-football issues the players were fighting for.
Instead, they shifted the focus back on themselves and how this potential change would impact their idea and consumption of the sport moving forward.
"The union isn't a bad idea; it's a terrible idea, mainly because it's extraordinarily inconvenient and no one is interfering with our tailgating."
There are both pros and cons that come with a movement of this magnitude, and the word "union" rarely leaves much room for middle takes. This is not meant to be a pro-union pitch or a profile of two treadmill users.
This is meant to highlight the issues with change and, more specifically, pinpoint how seamlessly we can turn these conversations about us rather than the issues at hand. This mindset, our mindsets, are beginning to trump all.
Down the road in Evanston, Illinois, roughly 30 miles from the treadmill venting session, the 76 eligible Northwestern football players had cast their union votes roughly 48 hours earlier.
Although the final verdict won't be known for some time, early indications are it did not go particularly well for pro-union supporters. Somewhere along the way, shortly after the momentum was picking up, it all fell apart.
Chris Emma of Scout.com reported that "no" was a popular selection in Evanston on voting day:
A high-placed #Northwestern source believes the union receives in the range of 60 'No' votes out of 75 players.— Chris Emma (@CEmmaScout) April 25, 2014
An already complicated situation will likely become more complicated before it's resolved—even with the vote all but seemingly solved.
After ruling that Northwestern players were employees in March, the National Labor Relations Board announced it would review its decision after a request by the school:
The National Labor Relations Board has granted Northwestern University's Request for Review of the Regional Director's March 26, 2014 decision in 13-RC-121359. The Regional Director found the University's grant-in-aid scholarship football players are employees under the National Labor Relations Act. The election will take place on April 25, 2014 but the ballots will be impounded until the Board issues a decision affirming, modifying or reversing the Regional Director's decision.
The Board intends to issue a subsequent notice establishing a schedule for the filing of briefs on review and inviting amicus briefs, to afford the parties and interested amici the opportunity to address issues raised in this case.
This will follow a process, and the players' unwillingness to jump headfirst into something so radical—particularly with pressures mounting—isn't all that shocking.
Although we rarely say this about anything in the sport, a union—especially one put together seemingly overnight—might be ahead of its time.
Or maybe it has no place at all.
What's most troubling about the reactions to this idea—and the countless other changes hovering over the sport—is where they originate.
It's assumed that there will be support on both sides of polarizing issues. The proposed changes in college football often center on money. This, by itself, will generate strong responses. This debate is understood, and it can be healthy if the intent is genuine.
But is this intent genuine? Do you really care about the issues at hand or do you care because your treasured Saturday tradition could be altered along the way?
We're all guilty of this, and this egocentric approach is only natural in many ways. It's our responsibility to care only about ourselves, especially when it comes to a sport we consume from an arm's length.
The moment proposed legislation puts our treasured experiences in limbo, however, we begin to take offense.
For further evidence of this, reawaken the outcry that came when the NCAA announced targeting would be an ejectable offense.
Forget about the blatant holes in the rule; the response from the "you're turning this into flag football!" crowd—the ones salivating over the brain-crushing collisions they've grown used to that are potentially killing players—was overwhelming.
Forget about the intent to improve the overall wellbeing of these unpaid young men; they were poised to mess with our regularly scheduled programming.
There might seem like a canyon separating player safety and the notion of a player union, although the responses are often similar: Selfishly, we respond a certain way because we're trained to care about about the results from our perspective rather than the issues being taken to task.
With a player union, the Ed O'Bannon lawsuit, other lawsuits just taking shape and the very livelihood of the NCAA being put on stage right before our very eyes, there's a distinct possibility the game you know and love right now will look significantly different in three years.
We need to come to terms with this.
No, the sport won't die—at least not through these legislative battles. Words like "doomed" and "catastrophic" have no place here.
It doesn't matter if a player union is formed and O'Bannon is somehow named king of the NCAA castle. Football will go on, players will play and your sacred Saturdays will remain sacred.
Having issues with certain complex proposals is one thing. It's intelligent. It's human, even.
But along the way—as we brace for more sweeping proposals that will continue to change the sport now and moving forward—it's worth questioning whether our stances are being taken for the right reasons.