Northwestern University Football: Catalyst for Change?

By on April 2, 2014 9:33 am
Institute of Sports Law and Ethics

A recent ruling by the regional director of the National Labor Relations Board in Chicago that football players at Northwestern University are university employees is a jarring example, in my view, of the need for further movement in the NCAA toward legislative autonomy for those institutions and conferences that are receiving substantial revenue from their football television packages and their men’s basketball tournament participation. And once they get that autonomy, the “big-time” schools and conferences need to act wisely for the good of the young folks who represent them in athletics.

Personally, I am not in favor of unionization by college athletes, but I think the efforts of the Northwestern football players will help college athletes significantly in the future. Certainly, there is no shortage of important issues facing the NCAA. For example:

Who should control the rights to the images and likenesses of college athletes?

Have the NCAA and its member institutions provided sufficient medical care and attention to their athletes, in particular, their football players?

Should the current NCAA amateurism model be scrapped in favor of a purely market-driven approach?

But aside from those issues, the Northwestern case demonstrates in stark detail the massive time commitment that participation in big-time college football demands of the players. I played college basketball, and after practice I was tired. But my little aches and pains were nothing like what football players routinely go through in practice sessions. I can remember interviewing football players after practice during my days as an NCAA investigator, and being struck by how long their recovery period took as compared with other sports. Given the intense physical nature of the sport, that is not surprising. Preparing for, and recovering from, football practice is extremely time-consuming.

I would urge anyone who is curious about the demands made upon football players to read the decision of the regional director of the NLRB in the Northwestern case and note the details presented. One wonders how these young men have managed to survive the academic rigors of a world-class institution of higher education, yet Northwestern’s graduation rates for football players are excellent. It must be noted, however, that the young man who has led the charge for unionization at Northwestern testified under oath that he was unable to pursue the degree path he really wanted to pursue because of the significant time demands of football.

I would hope to see the institutions and conferences that are reaping significant resources from the labors of their athletes gain the legislative autonomy to implement the following, in no particular order:

Provide full cost of attendance to all their student-athletes.

Establish a fund that players who exhaust their eligibility without graduating can utilize in order to complete their undergraduate education.

Establish a fund dedicated to payment of non-reimbursed athletically related medical expenses of past and current players.

Allow players the opportunity to share in a portion of the proceeds generated by sales of jerseys or merchandise that can be tracked specifically to them.

Allow players the opportunity to share in the marketplace revenue generated by sales of their autographs.

Implement and enforce reasonable time demands for all student-athletes, with particular focus on football.

Each of these items would be applicable to female athletes as well as male athletes.

I do not know if unionization is really the better way for athletes to proceed, and we are very early on in that process. The Northwestern matter will be appealed to the full NLRB in Washington, D.C., and then perhaps to federal court, and it must be noted that state institutions are not subject to the jurisdiction of the NLRB.

Many institutions of higher education (Santa Clara University, for one) provide a meaningful and challenging academic experience in conjunction with a highly competitive athletic experience for their student-athletes. Unfortunately, the huge amount of money flowing from lucrative conference football television packages has motivated schools to change conference membership and discontinue traditional relationships and rivalries, often to the detriment of student-athletes in all sports who must bear the brunt of more difficult travel and correspondingly increased missed class time.

If we are serious about the term “student-athlete” at all levels, then we need to be sure the young men and women in fact have the time to succeed academically. For those institutions and conferences that are generating significant revenue, there must be a way to do business that doesn’t simply add to the arms race of big-time football (who will be the first college football coach to earn $10 million dollars a year?) with no increase in revenue to the student-athletes whose blood, sweat and tears allow others to profit substantially.

I welcome your thoughts at mike.gilleran@gmail.com. Thanks.

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