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Here Are Some First Steps for Northwestern's Union

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The national media has focused on "pay-for-play" for college athletes after the recent National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ruling allowing Northwestern University football players to unionize.

The concept of universities cutting paychecks to college athletes is a complex one, one that could have numerous ramifications, including unknown effects for female athletes under Title IX and male athletes in so-called minor sports.

However, if the ruling survives all the legal challenges to come, there are several relatively straightforward items that a Northwestern players' union -- or a potential athletes' union at any university -- could bring to the bargaining table quickly.

Here are a few actions that college athletes should push for immediately when dealing with the NCAA in general and individual university athletic departments in particular:

1) Cover All Sports-Related Medical Expenses for Athletes and Disallow the Pulling of Scholarships From Athletes Who Suffer Injuries While Engaged in Sports Activities For Their School

Currently, there are athletes losing their athletic scholarships (or having them reduced) due to injuries occurred during athletic competition for their university. That's simply wrong.

As the National College Players Association (NCPA), headed by former UCLA linebacker Ramogi Huma, says, "It is immoral to allow a university to reduce or refuse to renew a college athlete's scholarship after sustaining an injury while playing for the university."

Even worse is the fact that some schools aren't paying for all -- or part - of athletes' medical expenses that are clearly tied to sports-related injuries. Those occurrences need to stop.

2) Require Athletic Scholarships to Cover the Full-Cost of College Attendance and Be For Five Years

"Full" athletic scholarships should be just that and cover the full-cost of college attendance for students.

According to an NCPA and Drexel University study, the average scholarship shortfall (out-of-pocket expenses) for each "full" scholarship athlete was approximately $3,222 per player during the 2010-11 school year.

Many major college football and basketball players come from impoverished circumstances. The full cost of attendance should be covered under full athletic scholarship programs. The NCPA suggests these additional scholarship costs could be easily covered by using a relatively small percentage of post-season revenues. That sounds reasonable.

In addition, athletic scholarships should be for five years. This would prevent coaches and athletic directors from "firing" athletes due to injuries or athletic performance reasons - even when they are excelling in the classroom.

3) Develop Policies That Severely Limit Weekday Games

Academic performance is hindered, and graduation rates are damaged, by the growing number of NCAA Division I games that take place on weekdays.

In order to honor the NCAA's stated mission "to integrate intercollegiate athletics so that the educational experience of the student athlete is paramount" the number of weekday games needs to be curtailed significantly.

Scheduling Tuesday and Wednesday night football games is not in the best interests of students' educational work.

4) Adopt the Olympic Model of Allowing Athletes to Benefit Economically From Their Fame

Economically, college football and basketball players continue to be exploited.

According to a study by the National College Players Association and the Drexel University Sport Management Department, football and men's basketball players at top sports schools are being denied at least $6.2 billion between 2011 and 2015 under National Collegiate Athletic Association rules that prohibit them from being paid.

Admittedly, paying athletes salaries as university employees is a complex challenge that could take years to sort out. However, allowing college athletes to receive money from outside the athletic department is much more straightforward and can happen quickly.

It's fair and just. And it gets rid of a lot of the hypocrisy in college sports.

It's time to let athletes benefit from their fame and likeness like every other student at our colleges and universities. Let them take endorsement money like the coaches that lead them. If the local auto parts store wants to pay a college athlete to sign autographs for two hours during a store sale, why shouldn't the athlete be allowed to take that opportunity? If someone wants to give an athlete a gift -- be it cash or tattoos -- why should that be banned? College students on music scholarships are free to accept cash or gifts for playing a weekend gig at the local club. What makes athletes different?

As an example, it's time to eliminate the NCAA's outdated concept of amateurism and allow college athletes to get paid for having their likeness on calendars.

The fact is, nobody else in our country has to deal with the economic restrictions that NCAA athletes currently face.

The Olympics dumped the amateur myth and allowed athletes to make money from their athletic ability and fame. And guess what? The world didn't end! In fact, the Olympics are more popular than ever.

"The plight of college athletes is definitely a civil rights issue," says civil rights historian and author Taylor Branch. "College athletes are citizens and are being denied their rights by what amounts to collusion. Colleges are telling football and basketball players they can't get anything above a college scholarship. The athletes are being conned out of their rights. We need modern abolitionists to fight this unjust and unstable system."

The Northwestern football players have stepped up. Now, we need others from all walks of life to join the fight.

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