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Opinion: Ohio State should join Northwestern players in push for unionization

Former-Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter (right) answers questions after announcing that Northwestern football players wish to join a labor union Jan. 28 at the Hyatt Regency in Chicago.

Former-Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter (right) answers questions after announcing that Northwestern football players wish to join a labor union Jan. 28 at the Hyatt Regency in Chicago.

In the past few years, the term “lockout” was only used in reference to professional teams. Now, the same term could be applied to college players.

Tuesday, the president of the National College Players Association, Ramogi Huma, filed a petition on behalf of the Northwestern football players with the National Labor Relations Board, the federal agency that recognizes groups seeking collective bargaining rights. The petition was filed in an attempt to let the athletes unionize.

The athletes, led by former-quarterback Kain Colter, want representation to improve the conditions under which they play. They want the university to pay for any injuries they receive and scholarships to cover the full cost of attendance (cost of attendance at Northwestern University is $63,228 for the 2013-14 school year, according to the university’s website). So far the players aren’t asking to be paid anything beyond scholarship money for playing, but ESPN speculates they might.

While it’s unlikely that the proposal will go through — most court decisions in the past few years have stated the athletes are students, not employees — the NCAA doesn’t want it to.

“This union-backed attempt to turn student-athletes into employees undermines the purpose of college: an education. Student-athletes are not employees, and their participation in college sports is voluntary,” NCAA chief legal officer Donald Remy said in a statement released in response to the filing.

Maybe in any Division III school. But not here.

Northwestern is a member of one of the five so-called “power conferences” which include the SEC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and the ACC. Not one of the schools in these conferences offer any sort of representation to “student-athletes.”

At many schools, the fame and scholarships that come with playing on these big teams are considered reward enough. But with 40 hours of practice a week, students leaving class to compete and priority scheduling to make sure students can actually get in the required amount of class with the required amount of practices, the so called benefits don’t look as impressive.

With those facts, it sounds good for football players to unionize.

“The action we’re taking isn’t because of any mistreatment by Northwestern,” Colter said in an interview with ESPN’s Outside The Lines explaining why he wanted to unionize. “We love Northwestern. The school is just playing by the rules of their governing body, the NCAA. We’re interested in trying to help all players — at USC, Stanford, Oklahoma State, everywhere. It’s about protecting them and future generations to come.

“Right now the NCAA is like a dictatorship. No one represents us in negotiations. The only way things are going to change is if players have a union.”

There is one other thing the NCAA could do, and that is scale college football back to what it should actually be: not such a big deal.

One day, even the best in the NFL leave. They have to do something else with their lives. They’ll need another job, and not all of them can become ESPN commentators. College should teach athletes that academics should come first.

Ohio State officially refers to its athletes as “student-athletes,” meaning they are students first, but the amount of days athletes miss for their respective sports is ridiculous.

Maybe it’s time college sports turned away from forcing students into spending all their time at practice.

But who are we kidding? The NCAA isn’t going to lose that $5.15 billion in revenue. The universities involved aren’t going to stop trying to attract people from around the world to compete in their sports programs. They don’t want to lose the prestige and tradition that comes out of their sports.

So maybe the answer to all this is to allow students to bargain. Northwestern, we salute you. OSU? We need to be right behind them.


  1. I don’t know what the right answer is, but it sickens me that the schools perpetually at the top of their conferences in Division I can charge for their football seats far more than NFL teams can typically get. And the OSU Athletic Department even having the audacity to create “premium games” and in one year raise the ticket prices for those games by around an additional 40%. All the while, the sweat and talent that allows OSU to bring in hundreds of millions of dollars is compensated basically the same as your average graduate assistant: a tuition waiver and something meager to help support their room and board.

    “Paying” student athletes is a very slippery road. Let’s not kid ourselves; that moves these kids from students to professional athletes. Sports like OSU football are definitely grueling beyond what I probably can even comprehend. I’d like to see colleges offer these students perhaps a full tuition waiver that remains in effect for up to 10 years, plus some form of a stipend for living expenses as long as they remain enrolled and are making progress toward a degree. OSU OWES THEM an education. Just like we expect our athletes to “leave it all on the field”, we should expect OSU to likewise “leave it all in the classroom”…Do everything it possibly can to assure 100% of our student athletes complete their degree.

  2. The thought of unionization sicken me. Yes, I support the students playing and being successful both on the field of competition and in the classroom. Sports at level of school, from elementary to high school to college, has become way too serious. The whole sport scene has become too serious in schools. I really wish someone would work to turn this around and schools go back to what was once called friendly play. At least in the elementary to high schools, each sport should be limited to the playing season. Kids should be able to participate in a fall sport, a winter sport and a spring sport. Even if students want too, coaches will not allow it. How sad. At the college level I’m sadden at gladiator mentality of fans and players. The fun of sports is gone.

  3. Horrible idea. These kids are young and don’t realize how naive it is to buy into the unionization scam. What they going to do, go on strike? Maybe if Colter had spent more time practicing his throwing instead of hanging around with union organizers NW would have won a few games and gone to a bowl.

  4. As an “employee” their tuition and all other benefits they receive that are not available to non scholarship students should and would be considered taxable income. Very few of these athletes will go on to play at the professional level and get a big payday but all “employees” are required to pay taxes on income as it is earned. With tuition at Northwestern exceeding $63000 plus housing and other benefits good luck convincing the 3rd string bench warmer that their scholarship is now going to cost them $10,000 to $15000 a year in income tax.

  5. I am sure there are a lot of students that also don’t like having to work 40 hours per week (or more or less) to pay for their rent, food, clothing, etc. I am sure there are many students who also would like the benefits of “study table” and access to tutors. Yes, the NCAA needs to revise some of their policies. However, I cannot buy into the need for a union. Try a Top Ramen diet in a worn-down drafty apartment while trying to pay for “the life” with whatever job you kind find to support yourself. Many of the students in this country have it much harder than the student-athletes. Don’t get me wrong. I pull for the student-athletes to succeed as students and athletes. I also hope that these individuals complete their undergrad programs and prepare for a successful career. Student-athletes and students can have very different realities.

  6. Been a union man all my life but unions in sports can be explained in one word BS.

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