Northwestern Football Moves Toward Unionization – Is Pay for Play Next?

by Kent Sterling

Kain Colter is a change agent, a pot stirrer, and the leader of a movement.  That's putting a valuable education to good use.

Kain Colter is a change agent, a pot stirrer, and the leader of a movement. That’s putting a valuable education to good use.

The debate is simple.  College athletes should either be paid to their value, or they should be happy with the educational opportunity they already receive as a scholarship athlete.  The tough part of deciding which side you support is understanding the consequences of changing the financial structure of college athletics.

Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter announced yesterday that he and his teammates have filed the necessary paperwork to unionize the football team.  The Wildcats are fighting for the right to sit at a table as the policies governing their post-career health coverage, ability to continue their education beyond the expiration of their athletic eligibility, and other issues are discussed.

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The NCAA involves student-athletes in discussions, but they have no legal standing to collective bargaining as they are not considered employees.  Colter wants to change that.

Walter Byers, the inventor of collegiate athletics as it exists today referred to it in his memoir “a neo-plantation mentality.”  It’s unfair that the young men and women who do the work have no place at the table where the rules governing their lives as athletes are discussed.

The NCAA, as you might guess, would prefer that the Northwestern football team remain an ad hoc group of gifted athletes without the benefits of belonging to a union would confer.

NCAA chief legal officer Donald Remy simply stated the NCAA’s position, ‘‘Student-athletes are not employees, and their participation in college sports is voluntary.”

So what happens if the Wildcats are declared employees and granted the right to unionize?

To say it will be a mess is an insult to messes.  Players might then be taxed on part or all of the cost of their scholarships.  Schools could lose their non-profit status, which would mean among many other things including donations to schools no longer being tax deductible.  That eliminates a significant incentive for those who write big checks, and would cause a massive financial hardship for the schools.

I could list the ways this thing could all spin wildly out of control if the National Labor Relations Board rules in favor of Northwestern, but none would change the question that you need to answer in your own mind – does the need to treat college athletes who are part of a multi-billion dollar machine as employees outweigh the potential changes it will cause to the collegiate athletic landscape as we know it?

Yesterday, on ESPN’s  “Around the Horn, host Tony Reali wrapped up the lively debate over paying players by saying that they had spent 11 years and three months arguing about paying players, and are no closer to an answer.  This morning, I read an article published in a 1986 edition of Sports Illustrated, and the question was discussed there in the same way it is today.

Hilariously, the piece refers to the TV deal for March Madness as growing “from a $180,000 afterthought in 1966 to the $32 million-a-year bonanza of today.”  The most recent deal signed in 2010 is worth roughly $742,000,000 during each of its 14 years.

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

That explosive growth in the wealth of the NCAA and its member institutions is part of the justification for those who want to fundamentally change the game for the people dubbed student-athletes by Byers in 1953 to help reaffirm the notion that athletes who happen to be students too are not employees.  A lot of people are making a lot of money, but none of it funnels down to the participants themselves.

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So, the decision becomes, should college football and men’s basketball players – responsible for so much revenue – be compensated to their value like everyone else in America, or should the current business model be maintained?  The consequences of either path appears dire.

Colter sees what he believes is a wrong and is trying to right it, and to Northwestern University’s credit, they support his effort if not the notion of “employee-athletes.”  He’s using the excellent education he received as compensation for sharing his athletic gifts quite well.

The game is changing, and before you make the call yourself as to whether doing the right thing is worth the consequences, you should read “Saturday Millionaires” by Kristi Dosh (who will be a guest at 9a this Saturday on ‘Ahead of the Curve; 1070 the Fan, Indianapolis).  It lays out the realities of college athletic finance better than anything I’ve read, and if you feel sure what the right answer to these apparently simple question is, you will be much less sure after reading Dosh’s breakdown.

As for me, the cost of doing the right thing never negates the need to do it, and paying athletes in proportion to their value is the right thing whatever mayhem it causes.  That chaos might cause the death of college sports as we know it, but the right thing is the right thing.

4 thoughts on “Northwestern Football Moves Toward Unionization – Is Pay for Play Next?

  1. Kevin Lynch

    I think that paying the athletes is what the scholarships are basically for, and the gifted athletes in revenue producing sports often don’t wait around for graduation. Swimming, gymnastics, volleyball, etc. would suffer, and “big time” college football and hoops would decline once they are seen as a sub pro league, just like the Olympics have since pros began to play, at least for me. Right is right, I agree, so Kain, just play pro, skip the scholarship, and see if anyone will pay a nickel for tickets to your game.

  2. Steve Koers

    Thanks for writing about this topic. As a Northwestern grad, I could not be more proud of my fellow wildcats for thinking outside the box and trying to call attention to the very serious issues they address. Though your post here talks about pay for play, that is not the basis of the effort to unionize.

    I’m not being critical, because I do realize you are trying to extrapolate this to what could be the next issue. I’m also not naive enough to think that, even though Colter and others want to limit this to a few issues, certain outside influences will try to high-jack this into a pay for play issue eventually. Personally, I don’t like pay for play, but I do whole-heartedly agree on the medical and scholarship issues they address. SB Nation has a great recap of the top 11 aspects of the effort, none of which is pay for play. (

    NU has some great resources and blogs of their own that really break down the issues. I’ve linked one below that discusses how it is not necessarily about employee/employer issues, but could actually have a chance. College teaching assistants have tried this route before with mixed results.

    I saw your post yesterday about trying to follow the money, and I do not envy that experience. Whatever one thinks about this, I am proud that NU players stood up and are trying to raise the attention this deserves. If the NCAA won’t give players a voice, this is a great way to insert players into the discussion. It is a unique first step that hopefully will lead somewhere positive.

    1. kentsterling Post author

      Absolutely right. Colter’s efforts have nothing to do with pay for play, but writing solely about what they are striving to attain didn’t seem as much fun. Not sure how anyone can argue against it. If the 65 major conference universities subdivision that was discussed two weeks ago at the the NCAA Convention two weeks ago is adopted, I would guess those changes would be made very quickly. What appears to stand in the way right now are athletic departments in MAC size conferences that are already supported by student fees. They can’t afford any additional expenses. The majority of the 65 schools can.

    2. Pauly Balst

      Thanks for the link Steve, NU should be very proud the kids are leaders. If I were the NCAA, I’d give the athletes all but #8 and buy themselves a decade. The likeness is the big enchilada.

      The fact the kids can’t make money is one thing. The fact the universities can make money is another. But the fact that meanwhile Adidas and Nike can print money selling jerseys with YOUR NAME (Manziel, Griffin III, etc) is outrageous.

      What’s exciting is this is going to happen, in some manner, very quickly. A one half of one game suspension for Manziel as precedent, the next kid should get $100k and sit a half game. Good luck putting this genie back in the bottle.


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