EDGES BLOG: On Unions for College Athletes

Cultural Studies PhD candidate Jason Morris takes the establishment of a union by the Northwestern football team on January 28, 2014 as an entry point to discuss the political economy of college athletes. Read his thoughts below. 

Tuesday, January 28 members of the Northwestern University football team did something no other group of college athletes in the United States has ever done: They started a union. Or rather, they began the process. With support from the National College Players Association (NCPA) and the United Steelworkers Union, an overwhelming majority of the team members, led by quarterback, Kain Colter, filled out union cards and filed paperwork with the National Labor Relations Board. Their goal: To form a College Athletes Players Association that will advocate for changes to the way the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), the twenty ton behemoth that manages and regulates college sports, treats “student-athletes.” The announcement arrived on a day when the Super Bowl media hype machine was kicking into high gear and yet, it still managed to command the attention of much of the sports journalism world and even made an appearance on the Op/Ed page of the New York Times.

So, what’s the big deal? Why might Northwestern running back Stephen Buckley have responded to the announcement by tweeting “And then the grenade was thrown…”? (Metaphor? Yes. Hyperbole? Not so much.) Why might a blogger on “Chicago Now” have described the effort as a “Historic Move Towards Social Justice”? (Hyperbole? Perhaps. Just a bit.)

Before I offer my response to these questions I feel obligated to offer the following confessions of bias: (1) I am a huge college football fan. (2) I completed my undergraduate degree at Northwestern in the mid-1990s during a time when the football team’s current coach, Pat Fitzgerald, was a star linebacker. During his playing days at Northwestern Fitzgerald helped lead the football team out of a three decades long residency in the basement of the Big Ten conference to back-to-back conference titles and a trip to the Rose Bowl. (3) I grew up in a union household—the white-collar kind. My parents, now retired with benefits, have been members of the Texas State Employees Union for over twenty years. (I know what you’re thinking but yes, Virginia, they do have unions in Texas.)


Now that I’ve gotten the confessions out of the way, let’s walk through why the attempted unionization efforts of a college football team might get a few people’s attention.

First, in case you’ve been living under a rock, or perhaps ensconced in an academic tower into which no mention of college athletics can penetrate, the NCAA, and college football in particular, is big, big, business. The television contracts associated with the four-team College Football Playoff format set to begin in early 2015 are estimated to be worth $6 billion over 12 years. That breaks down to $500,000,000 per year for just three games—two semifinals and a final. This is to say nothing of the money associated with regional television contracts for regular season games, ticket sales and merchandising. According to data from the Department of Education the University of Alabama football team—one of the best in the country over the last decade—netted almost $45,000,000 in the year 2011-12. If you factor in all the revenue generated by men’s college basketball the numbers go way, way past staggering.

 Second, let’s take a look at that whole merchandising element. The NCAA is currently embroiled in a long running class action lawsuit surrounding the Association’s right to profit from the use of images of student-athletes in commercial ventures. A subplot of this battle surrounds the video game maker EA Sports’ use of player statistics (height, weight, build, home state, etc…) to design the avatars used in its wildly popular NCAA Football game franchise. Mr. Colter, an African-American with dark black hair, gained a bit of publicity in the summer of 2012 when he took issue with his own NCAA Football 2013 avatar: a white guy with red hair.


Third, when it’s not busy fending off merchandising lawsuits the NCAA is dealing with rising complaints about player safety. Concussions and spinal injuries in football have drawn the most attention: Mr. Colter sat out for most of the first two games last season with “concussion-related symptoms” stemming from a hit he took on the second play of the team’s opening game. Concerns about injuries, and the long term medical costs associated with treating them, have been rising across all collegiate sports regardless of gender or perceived level of physical harm.

Finally, as the costs of attending college have risen over the past decade, the NCAA has been pressured to make changes to the ways in which athletic scholarships are administered. In general, athletic scholarships such as those offered to college football players, cover the full cost of tuition, room and board. This isn’t a bad deal, particularly at an elite private school like Northwestern where the full-cost of attendance for the 2013-2014 school year is around $63,000. The difficulty emerges when “student-athletes”, particularly “student-athletes” from low and moderate income families, look for ways to pay the few thousand dollars worth of incidental expenses that aren’t covered by their scholarships.

Many students might pick up a summer job to cover these expenses but this option isn’t available to “student-athletes” under current NCAA regulations. In an effort to maintain the purity of amateur college sports current NCAA regulations prohibit “student-athletes” from engaging in any kind of paid employment. No summer jobs at Mom’s law firm. No newspaper delivery route. No babysitting. Unpaid internships? Fine. Selling your labor power for actual wages? Nope. This also means that players cannot benefit from the sale of team merchandise. In December of 2010, five members of the Ohio State University football team—another elite college football program—admitted to receiving discounted tattoos from a Columbus-area tattoo parlor and were sanctioned by the NCAA for selling team memorabilia and gear. The players, all from moderate-income families, each netted around $1,500 as part of these transactions. Much of that money went to pay incidental expenses and help support their families. A condition of these sanctions required that they return the money. The scandal eventually cost then football coach Jim Tressel his job.


January 28’s announcement followed a series of players rights-related skirmishes that cropped up during the 2013 college football season. First, during a slate of Saturday games in early September some members of the Northwestern, Georgia Tech and Georgia football teams wrote the letters “APU”—All Players United–on their wristbands and other parts of their uniforms. The APU movement, organized by the NCPA, is designed to raise awareness about player safety, particularly concussion related injuries. In October, players at Grambling State University, a historically black university in Louisiana, responded to the firing of the team’s head coach and the deplorable condition of the team’s practice and locker room facilities (a number of players on the team claim to have contracted staph infections due to lack of proper sanitation in the bathrooms and showers) by boycotting a series of practices as well as a game against conference rival Jackson State University. Finally, in early January, the NCPA arranged to have a plane fly a banner reading “All Players United for Concussion Reform. Wake up NCAA!” over the Rose Bowl for three hours prior to the kickoff of the BCS National Championship Game (the Super Bowl of college football).

The initial demands associated with Tuesday’s announcement center around long-term medical benefits for football players, expanded efforts to manage player safety and guaranteed scholarships that cover the full cost of college attendance and the full length of a player’s undergraduate studies. Contrary to much of the commentary that emerged after the initial announcement the players are not asking to be directly paid for their ‘labor’ on the football field.


Now that I’ve outlined why college football players might want to start a union let’s talk about why academics might want to pay attention to their efforts regardless of whether or not they are successful.

First, as a student of political economy, I find this whole topic intellectually fascinating. And I’m pretty sure that Marx and Engels would as well if they were still around. Although I bet Karl would be one of those nerdy anti-sports intellectuals who go around harrumphing about how football is the opiate of the masses. Either that or he’d be a full on drunken Bundesliga fanboy. We could, for example, start with this whole “student-athlete” versus “employee” debate. The players’ ability to form a union depends precisely on whether or not they can be considered employees. The NCAA coined the term ‘student-athlete’ back in the 1950s so that they could avoid having to pay workers compensation benefits to the wife of a player who died on the field during a game. (Check out Taylor Branch’s piece in The Atlantic for a full accounting of this legal slight of hand.)

Or what about the player’s demands? Is this a case of organizing for better wages, better working conditions or both?

Let’s also remember that the NCAA, along with all the universities and colleges that are members of the Association are not-for-profit entities. (The for-profit University of Phoenix has it’s name pasted all over a football stadium in Glendale, Arizona but it does not, at least not yet, field NCAA-sanctioned sports teams.) To what extent can the University of Alabama, a public institution of higher education, be considered a capitalist enterprise if it nets $45,000,000 a year on its investments in college football and plows those funds back into the operation and management of the school? Will ESPN and other media outlets be exploiting the surplus labor time of “student-athletes” next month when they televise games from the NCAA College Basketball tournament?

And what about gender? Many commentators have pointed out that women’s sports and the plight of female student-athletes has received nary a mention in much of the NCPA’s rhetoric. It’s also well known that men’s football and basketball tend to be the revenue generating sports that fund so called non-revenue generating sports such as track and field, tennis and women’s volleyball.

And what about questions of solidarity? Will the player’s union extend a hand of friendship to graduate teaching assistants? Adjunct faculty? Service workers in campus cafeterias? The underpaid garment workers in developing countries who produce the team’s Under Armour-branded uniforms? Should they even be expected to do so?

Exploring the discourse around this topic, offers the opportunity to examine everyday attitudes towards unionization, higher education and the businesses of sports. Over the past two weeks I’ve reviewed numerous online posts on the topic and followed the debate the players’ announcement generated on an email listserv dedicated to Northwestern athletics. Without a doubt the most common sentiment I’ve seen expressed is support of the players’ demands related to health care and athletic scholarships. At the same time there appears to be an overwhelming discomfort with the idea of unionization or having players share in the revenue their activities help generate. Put differently, if you want to advocate for improved working conditions and benefits, great—just don’t say you’re forming a union and most certainly do not ask to actually be paid a fair wage for the profits your labor produces.

Such a sentiment, it seems to me, speaks volumes about the kind of broader opposition to unionization that is regularly expressed across the country. One of the arguments frequently advanced for supporting the players’ health care demands involved likening them to coal miners. Playing college football and mining coal are both physically brutal and potentially dangerous activities, so of course we should provide basic safety protections to miners and players alike. This idea of physical danger also prompted some commentators to ask whether college golfers or swimmers should seek to unionize given the perception that these activities involved little to no physical danger. This perception of unions as something necessary only to protect worker health in dangerous industries, or player health in dangerous sports, might help partially explain recent attacks on retirement pensions for white collar public employees. Pensions and benefits for military veterans and retired first responders are often considered politically untouchable given the very real sacrifices these groups have made by exposing themselves to physical dangers as well as the emotional stresses associated with laboring in war zones, fighting fires and policing drug traffickers. If physical danger is the sole unit of measurement by which the benefits of unionization are measured and doled out in the public sphere then the efforts and sacrifices of those laboring in danger-free cubicles and climate controlled environments pale in comparison to having your Humvee blown up by an IED on some desolate backroad in Afghanistan. Such a calculus also makes it far easier to advocate for the rollback of employment guarantees such as tenure. Public school teachers in California and elsewhere are currently facing such threats.

It’s also important to understand the extent to which college football can be seen as a microcosm for understanding broader conflicts around class, ethnicity and regional identity. For example, Colter and his teammates were accused by some commentators of being a bunch of whining, privileged brats who were offered the opportunity to attend an elite university at little to no cost and then complained about how poorly they were treated. And yet, Colter’s own comments about the NLRB filing speak to a broader solidarity with “student-athletes” across the country: “The action we’re taking isn’t because of any mistreatment by Northwestern. We love Northwestern…. 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.”

I would, however, argue that there is some truth to the suggestion that this effort could only have emerged from an elite, private university like Northwestern. The school is located in the northern suburbs of Chicago—a city with a long history of labor and union activism—and its students tend to command the social and cultural capital necessary to make such efforts successful. Such efforts would likely have met with deep resistance had they originated at a public university in the Deep South or the Sunbelt. ESPN columnist Ivan Maisel, a native of Alabama who attended Stanford University, addressed this conflict when he pointed out [U6] that even if the NLRB does rule in favor of the Northwestern players, the ruling will only apply to the 17 or so private schools who are members of the NCAA’s Football Bowl Subdivision. Extending unionization to public schools in the FBS would involve state-by-state action. Maisel expressed his skepticism that such efforts would be well received in Tuscaloosa or Baton Rouge where the phrase “right to work” looms almost as large as the myth of the virtuous amateur college football player. This is not to say that students at Alabama or LSU would not be capable of such actions, but they would likely encounter far more difficulty than Colter and his teammates have experienced thus far.

Finally, it’s worth noting, per Joe Nocera’s recent column in the New York Times, that Colter drew some of the inspiration for his efforts from a class he took about the modern workplace in which he learned about “the steelworkers’ union and the professional sports unions.” We have become accustomed to understanding the university as a modern workplace that increasingly relies on various forms of labor: graduate teaching assistants, adjuncts with limited job security, swarms of low paid service workers—and debt, not only the student loan variety but also the kind required to the finance the massive building booms necessary to keep up with the facilities arms race that has swept college campuses over the last decade. To what extent must we now also consider the “student-athlete” a part of this complicated matrix?