THE BLOG
02/01/2014 12:20 am ET Updated Apr 02, 2014

The Significance of College Athletes Signing Union Cards

Whether they know it or not, college sport reformers received a gift a few days ago when Northwestern football players, led by team leader Kain Colter, signed cards and submitted a petition to unionize with the regional office of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) in Chicago. In this player-centered attempt to organize, these football players have done what the college sport system and American higher education have failed to do over the span of more than a hundred years. The attempt to create the College Athletes Players Association (CAPA) symbolizes the necessity for, and the importance of, acknowledging a heretofore unrecognized labor force denied the full measure of protections accorded that status. Through the collective bargaining process, college athletes stand to have access to a level of advocacy that will ensure a proper focus on their health, safety and well-being.

Some experts and college sport officials have offered skepticism that the action taken by the players will mean anything in the long run. On behalf of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), Chief Legal Officer Donald Remy stated that "Student athletes are not employees within any definition of the National Labor Relations Act or the Fair Labor Standards Act." He further noted that college athletes have no right to organize. This is, of course, the same association that recently asserted in court filings that it had no duty to protect college athletes while also noting that it was founded to "protect young people from the dangerous and exploitative athletic practices of the time."

The action by the Northwestern football team, supported by the United Steelworkers, emanates from a long history of collisions over the status of athletes and their rights on college campuses. Flickering indicators of college athlete unrest have been reverberating throughout the past year. When college football players in the fall of 2013 marked "All Players United" (APU) on their gear, a protest in which Colter and Northwestern football players participated, they were engaging in a struggle and enacting a script that started at least 77 years before.

In one of the earliest recorded college athlete protests, football players at Howard University declined to take the field against Virginia Union in 1936. A year later, two football players from Louisiana State University (LSU) would be dismissed from the team for attempting to organize a union. In that same year, the University of Pittsburgh football players, supported by their coach Jock Sutherland, presented a list of three demands to the administration before they would agree to participate in Rose Bowl. The dispute arose from the fact that the university had made $100,000 off of their Rose Bowl win the previous year while each player on that team was given $7.50 or less than $250 as a team. Although the administration acceded to the players' demands, the athletic director Don Harrison resigned and the Chancellor, John Gabbert Bowman, vowed to institute reform to bring players in line.

Chronicled in the pages of the Daily Worker in the 1930s and 1940s, similar confrontations between college football players and their home institutions took place across the country. Pitt's coach, Jock Sutherland would eventually be fired as Bowman sought to limit player compensation, issuing them tuition bills that they were expected to pay after being told that their education would be paid for by the school. In 1940, Stanford players successfully embarked on their own quest to be paid $50 for participating in the Rose Bowl. At the University of Arizona, players sought $175 each but were denied that consideration by their administration.

In 1945, Wake Forest football players were offered $100 incentives from boosters to overcome their reluctance to play in the Gator Bowl. Players countered with a proposal that starters should be paid $150. As Richard Southall (2012) noted in Sports in higher education: Issues and controversies, "The players were not uncomfortable turning their backs on amateurism and getting paid; they simply felt starters should be paid more than non-starters."

In 1961, the Liberty Bowl in Philadelphia, which featured a matchup between Syracuse and the University of Miami, became the scene for a showdown between college football players and a head coach. Questioning why they were giving up their holiday season to play in a made-for-TV event that profited others but offered them nothing, Syracuse players presented their head coach, Ben Schwartwalder, with an ultimatum. Noticing that players in other bowl games had been awarded complementary wristwatches, the players refused to play the game unless they were awarded the same. The game was played and the players got their watches.

Coach Schwartzwalder and the Syracuse football program would face more player unrest later in the decade when racial tensions rose in the aftermath of a fight that occurred between a black student and white football player in 1969. By the following May, a group that became known as the Syracuse Eight boycotted spring practice in an attempt to bring attention to ongoing racial discrimination and insensitivity. As the civil rights movement came to an end, the walk-out by black players at Syracuse was indicative of player protests occurring at many colleges and universities around the country between 1968 and 1972.

About that time in college sport history, scholar David Wiggins wrote, "Life on America's predominantly white university campuses... was anything but tranquil." As part of black student revolt on college and university campuses, "... sociologist Harry Edwards estimated that in 1968 alone some 37 black athletic revolts took place on predominantly white university campuses."

The perceived assault on the authority of college coaches who had become accustomed to unilaterally imposing behavior codes on players without opposition became the substance of a three-part series entitled "The Desperate Coach" published in an August, 1969 edition of Sports Illustrated. Reporter John Underwood captured the tone and tenor of the time, writing "In the privacy of their offices, over breakfast in strange towns, wherever two or three coaches get together, they talk about The Problem." And "the problem" as coaches called it went beyond clashes between black players and white coaches. White players, as well, objected to the way that coaches treated teams generally.

Leading expert on the cultural history of college football, Michael Oriard noted, "...matters of team discipline to coaches were concerns of fairness or human rights to the players" (para. 5). Out of those confrontations, small victories were won for players with coaches conceding ground on personal grooming (hair length, facial hair and attire), more black assistant coaches were hired, and overt racial insensitivities were addressed. For the players who boycotted, some were never permitted to return to their teams, others returned but never felt that they were welcome, and still others found it difficult to get jobs in athletics after being identified as troublemakers.

Coaches, in turn, found a way to regain control over the athletes on their team. "In January of 1973, the NCAA quietly passed legislation replacing the four-year athletic scholarship with a one-year renewable grant". With the passage of the one-year renewable, the NCAA effectively solidified coach power over athletes, severely limiting the opportunities athletes would have to advocate on their own behalf.

And in the years since, college athletes have continued to lose ground, operating in a system where the rules are set by those who have fostered the profitability of an ever expanding commercial college sport landscape while enriching their own pockets. Between 1986 and 2010, the salaries of head football coaches in the NCAA's Football Bowl Series (FBS) Division increased by 650 percent, aided by the proliferation of complex incentive and bonus structures built into contracts negotiated by agents. Players, on the other hand, have been expressly denied that kind of representation and have been locked into a compensation scheme that was developed by the NCAA in 1957, which limits athletic scholarship awards to tuition, room and board, and books, a calculation that is set below the full cost of attending college. As a result, as the National College Players Association (NCPA) and Drexel University study entitled The $6 Billion Heist reports, even college football and basketball players who are on full rides may still have to pay $3,000 to $5,000 per year. Should an athlete be permanently injured, their scholarship can be taken away with no cushion left for the athlete. Expenses associated with sports-related injuries often accrue to college athletes with limited to no coverage provided after eligibility expires. But for the NCAA's use of the myth of amateurism and the invention of the term "student-athlete" so as to subvert worker's compensation lawsuits, the real nature of the relationship between college football and men's basketball players and their roles as laborers in a business that generates $16 billion in revenue from television rights would have been understood years ago.

When examined through the lens of history, the move on the part of players to organize and create the College Athletes Players Association illustrates what is at stake in this discussion. In their quest for a seat at the table, the players are asking for a basic fundamental right, a right to human dignity.

College sport reformers should embrace this as a truthful act of reform, an act that interrupts the duplicity generated from self-serving decisions made by the powerful within college sport over years that have resulted in a regulatory system rife with obfuscations that players are asked to overlook or pretend do not exist. Consider how often college athletes negotiate a landscape that does not make sense to them. They are told that the rules are there to create a clear line of demarcation between college and professional sports and yet they are well aware that from their coaching staffs to the size of audiences to their training regimens to the production value of their games -- no such line exists.

The concept of time itself is altered by virtue of definitions found in the NCAA Manual. Designed to give the appearance that demands on college athletes lives are not as extreme as they actually are, college athletes live within a world where some activities associated with their athletic commitments are "countable" and others not. For example, when a coach calls a meeting with an athlete, the time is "countable." When an athlete initiates a meeting with a coach, the time is not countable. According to Bylaw 17.1.6.2.3, the calibration of time takes on a whole new meaning when it comes to days when athletes compete in competition. On those days, regardless of how long a day it might be, only three hours are added to the weekly countable total. On a football game day, a player may easily be committed to team obligations for a full 12 hours or more, starting with a mandatory team breakfast followed by meetings, walk-throughs, pre-game preparation, the game and post-game debriefings and treatments. Thus, the disconnect between FBS football players and NCAA Division I men's basketball players who report spending 43.3 and 39.2 hours on their sports respectively and NCAA rules that insist that athletes spend no more than 20 hours per week in season and eight hours per week out of season.

The college sport business has more than come of age in the 21st Century. In this gesture, college athletes leave behind the media image that has characterized them as "kids" and misrepresented them as "student-athletes" for the intended purpose of denying the existence of a pay-for-play system and undermining worker compensation claims. By signing union cards, the players have testified to their reality, a reality they live every day, a reality that tells them that they are employees.

Kain Colter and the Northwestern football team have demonstrated that they are young people who have the integrity and courage to pursue something better for themselves and future generations. Those genuinely interested in college sport reform should follow their lead.