Administrators Tell College Athletes: Don’t Worry, Be Happy

Leo Gerard

Big league universities want the athletes they recruit to see them as substitute moms and dads. Don’t worry, they say, be happy, ’cause we’ve got you covered.

It’s all very appealing – until an athlete is seriously injured in practice or a game. Then the athlete may lose his scholarship. Then, all too often, after he leaves school, he can’t get medical care for the injury because the university didn’t continue to provide insurance. Then he’s out in the cold with no concern from the school that had been so solicitous before he was crippled on its field of glory.

“Don’t worry, be happy” is the same paternalistic hogwash that employers across America tell workers. Don’t fuss about the safeguard missing from that hazardous paper rolling machine. Don’t concern yourselves with that deadly silica dust you’re inhaling. Don’t fret about supervisors overriding safety devices. Just be happy you’ve got a job, the boss says. Some workers, however, are never happy blindly placing their lives in the hands of others. So they join with fellow workers and establish labor unions, giving them the leverage they need to improve their welfare at work. That’s what the scholarship football players at Northwestern University are doing. They’re forming a union to achieve some level of self-determination.

Like coal miners and steelworkers and school teachers, university football players want a seat at the table when issues affecting their health and welfare are decided. Scholarship football players at Northwestern University are seeking that position for themselves. They did it by authorizing a new labor union, the College Athletes Players Association (CAPA), to represent them.

The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), the governing body for college sports, has condemned the attempt by college athletes to secure the right to participate in deciding their own fates. The NCAA’s position is clear: it should retain complete paternalistic control over the players.

Its response last year to football players from several universities who publically demonstrated for better concussion precautions illustrates clearly that the NCAA believes college athletes are best seen and not heard.

Every year, researchers discover more about the devastating, life-long effects of concussions. College players, who suffer concussions routinely, are rightly concerned. Their academic scholarships will be valueless if injuries on the field cause debilitating and permanent brain injuries.

To express their concerns, some players, including Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter, wore to last season’s televised games wristbands bearing the initials “APU.” It stands for All Players United for reform of rules regarding concussions set by the NCAA and the universities.

The NCAA responded as if concussed.

That was not the reaction of a caring parent. The NCAA and the universities even failed at the pretense of paternalism.

So Colter sought help from someone he knew he could trust, Ramogi Huma, a former UCLA linebacker who had in 2001created the National College Players Association (NCPA) to advocate for better treatment of university athletes.

They decided to go beyond advocacy, to seek a union for college athletes, so they would have real leverage to use ­– the power of a team – to negotiate over safety issues. The vast majority of Northwestern scholarship football players, who are outstanding students with a graduation rate of 97 percent, signed cards seeking representation by CAPA, for which Huma also serves as president.

Huma asked my union, the United Steelworkers, for help with the legal costs as the issue of unionization by scholarship athletes was argued before the regional office of the National Labor Relations Board. The USW, which has 12 years assisted Huma and the players association, agreed.

Last week, Peter Ohr, a regional NLRB director, ruled that the scholarship players have the right to form a union. Ohr wrote that these players, who devote as many as 50 hours a week to football, are employees within the meaning of the National Labor Relations Act.

Northwestern has announced it will appeal. That means these athletes won’t immediately get a seat at the table. It means universities and the NCAA are likely to continue ignoring many of the athletes’ concerns.

In addition to better protection against concussions, the athletes want insurance coverage that would enable them to get treatment after college for injuries sustained on the field. They want the schools to stop rescinding their academic scholarships when injuries in college games and practices end their athletic careers. They want some control over how their likenesses are used.

These young people place their health in jeopardy every time they step on the field. They know that. They love the game, and they’re willing to take necessary risks.

But they shouldn’t be exposed to unnecessary risks. No amount of scholarship money justifies endangering young people needlessly.

The safety measures and insurance the players are seeking won’t bankrupt the universities or the NCAA either. The NCAA and the universities will get, for example, $7.3 billion over 10 years from the TV coverage of the new football playoff system.

But just like other powerful, highly profitable employers, the universities won’t simply comply with safety measures or hand over benefits. They’re not kindly parents.

Despite all the assurances from football programs, the athletes still worry. They’re not happy. And Northwestern’s football players are doing something about it. They’re in league now with millions of other workers who realized that the only way to get what they need is to bargain for it collectively.

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