Friday, April 25, 2014

Down, set, unionize!

Today football players at Northwestern University outside Chicago will vote on whether or not to unionize. Ever since the Chicago office of the National Labor Relations Board ruled that college football players should be considered employees of the school they attend there has been pressure put on the NU players to vote down unionization.

Coach Pat Fitzgerald has been adamant in his opposition to the union effort. And why not? After all, he's part of the management structure. Of course he doesn't want the players working together to improve their working conditions and benefits. Such an action would mean he wasn't the Grand Poobah by the Lake. Unionization could mean an end to the program of "voluntary" off-season workouts in which anyone who volunteers not to be there is volunteering not to play in the fall.

Unionization might also mean that there would be a limit on the number of hours a week players could practice being that excessive practice time interferes with a student's ability to study and prepare for class.

University officials are scared to death of what might happen should the players vote to unionize. A yes vote today could usher in an era of better health care coverage for injuries suffered while playing for the university and for four-year scholarships instead of the current year-at-a-time scholarship that puts a player at the mercy of the coach.

Such measures could cut into the pool of money that Northwestern and other universities rake in from football and basketball. Now, to be fair, very few colleges have athletic departments that make a profit. In fact, many schools have to subsidize athletics by tacking on fees for the rest of the student body. Of course there is always a few million dollars to hand out to the coach. In many cases, the head football coaches at a state's public institutions are the highest paid state employees - underlining our screwed up sense of priorities.

The football players who are on the fence on this issue (and the ones who are against it) need to get their heads around the concept that there is power in numbers. While the coaching staff might not like the idea, if the players are united in their efforts, they will win in the end. These players are exploited by the school. While the NU athletic department brings in some $20 million a year as a result of the Big Ten Network, the players are the equivalents of unpaid farmhands who the program will chew up and spit out once they are no longer of any use.

For the vast majority of these players, their playing days will end with the final game of their senior season. They will then go off into the world with nothing but the education they received at Northwestern. They will be the ones stuck with the nagging medical issues left over from their time on the gridiron.

Our current sports media coverage has deified coaches and athletic directors at the expense of the players. Coaches are portrayed as field generals leading their troops into battle while the players are just the meat being led to slaughter. Watch a college football game and you will never hear a commentator talk about how coaches hold players hostage by threatening to yank a scholarship. You won't hear anyone talk about who's responsible for the long-term side effects of playing college football. You will rarely hear someone talk about coaches who refuse to allow players to transfer to another school.

Today is the day for college football players to fight back and tear off the shackles that hold them captive. This is the time for them to seize the moment. Today's the day we find out whether football builds character or just serves to crush dissenting voices.


In a demonstration of just how powerful a group of workers can be, no one will be climbing Everest from the Nepali side in 2014 after Sherpas decided to walk off the mountain following last week's deadly avalanche. While the Sherpas on the mountain earn far more than the average Nepali, the government's decision to pay the families of those who died on the mountain a measly $400 brought to a boil tensions that had been simmering for years.

Maybe the football players at Northwestern should take a loot to see just what an organized group of workers can do when they act with the collective strength of the entire group.

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