By Frank Lewis
If there is one thing I have learned over the years, it is not to trust my knee-jerk reaction to anything. When I first heard that the National Labor Relations Board ruled the Northwestern University football team could unionize, I had all of these horrible thoughts come to my mind.
I thought about it changing the entire landscape of the so-called “student athlete” system. I thought about the devastation of a strike on the eve of the national championship. I thought of people getting angry and tearing up athletic complexes that cost taxpayers millions and billions of dollars. Those thoughts went on and on.
Then, when the cobwebs cleared out of my mind, I realized it was another of my knee-jerk reactions. The fundamental thing here is that in the United State of America, you have the right to organize and to collective bargaining. I also do not believe the myth that is the “student athlete.” Nothing else in college calls for devoting 16 hours a day to activities separate from classes. Nothing else brings in millions of dollars to the universities the way football does.
Then, I thought about the most dysfunctional governing body on the planet - the NCAA. You can bet minutes after the NCAA Football Championship ended, the NCAA shipped out hundreds of thousands of shirts with the team’s logo, and the NCAA made millions of dollars off those shirts while the players who made it happen didn’t get a dime. I believe that some day in the near future, an aggregation of major universities will walk away from the NCAA, and eventually so will all universities. That organization has outlived its usefulness.
I thought how coaches sign multi-million dollar contracts with the universities and the same dollar figures with shoe manufacturers, and the players get nothing.
The biggest argument people can come up with is that they get a free education, room and board. The truth is in today’s big time college football, a good percentage of the best players are only there to fulfill a rule which does not permit coming directly out of high school to the NFL. What if those players had to pay the value of their one year scholarship back? That money could go into a fund to provide scholarships and stipends for underprivileged students. It’s a thought that needs to be considered and tweaked if necessary.
I have, for a long time, advocated paying college athletes at least a stipend. Many of these young people come directly out of the inner-cities and poverty. They often can’t afford the same things the other students enjoy, yet at the same time, through their talent, they make millions for the universities, the coaches, the athletic departments and the NCAA. They should have the same opportunity to go to the same restaurants, buy the same iPad and the same clothing as others who come from a more stable background.
Now, I know that a lot of poor students have gone off to college without an income and have struggled to get their educations. I understand that completely and have a deep respect for those people. But these people are in an entirely different category. They are expected to be at practice before dawn, work for hours, take their classes, come back, workout in a gym, followed by more practice time, and somehow complete the requirements to stay in college and play football.
I won’t even touch on health coverage, safety issues such as concussions, and how players who get injured sometimes are just thrown away by universities and never heard from again. Who is supposed to protect their rights? I have never been a union type person. It is just my personal choice. But what I do stand for is people to have the right to make a choice on their own, and I respect them for their decision, whatever that decision is.
I believe it is a fundamental right for a body of people to unionize, just as it is the fundamental right of people to choose not to unionize, such as the auto workers at the Volkswagen plant in Tennessee did. I think the NLRB got it right this time. And, yes, I believe this may be just the beginning of the changing of the student athlete landscape. But things change and restructuring occurs. Even things that never seemed to make sense before, suddenly make sense. Change is fundamental.
Frank Lewis can be reached at 740-353-3101, Ext. 252, or on Twitter @FrankLewispdt.