A US college football player's union could be 'revolutionary'

Northwestern University football players take the field in a game on November 16, 2013 Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption College football has become a billion-dollar business, but the front-line workers - the players - are unpaid

With the growth of big-time college football in the US, which generates more than $5bn (£3bn) in annual revenue, the pretence that the players are "student-athletes" is becoming increasingly untenable for major universities and the sport's governing body, the National Collegiate Athletic Association.

This week a group of football players from Northwestern University announced that they were applying to the US government to form a labour union affiliated with the United Steelworkers in order to allow them to collectively bargain as recognised university employees.

Currently, college athletes can be given tuition scholarships, free room and board, and treatment from sports physicians. Former Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter, who has led the charge, says the initial goals of the union would be to ensure that scholarships can't be revoked for medical issues, compensation for the full cost of attending college, greater awareness and prevention of the concussion injuries that plague the sport, and insurance coverage for treatment of sports-related injuries that linger after a player has finished school. He also did not rule out a future push for players to receive salaries from their schools.

Lester Munson, of the ESPN television sports network, writes that this is a major development in US college sport.

"The action of the Northwestern players in signing the cards asking for a labor union will ripple through the world of college sports for weeks and cause waves of discussion and consideration," writes Lester Munson for ESPN. "Their action will be the prime topic of discussion whenever and wherever other players, coaches, athletic directors, and university presidents and board members gather. Things may never be the same."

Dan Haar of the Hartford Courant says this move was a predictable result of continued exploitation of players by their schools.

"This has been brewing for decades, as big-time college football and basketball programs reap billions, larding up coaches' salaries and university coffers," he writes. "Players do get an education and a 4-year tryout for the NFL or NBA, but that still leaves plenty of room for abuse, especially for the non-stars."

Slate's John Culhane worries that the prospect of playing players may be good for those in the high-profile sports of football and basketball, but there may be other unintended consequences.

"The success of football and basketball players in earning a long-overdue pay check might be taken out of the hide of athletes that don't generate revenue, causing sports like wrestling to disappear even faster than they're vanishing now."

Breitbart's C Edmund Wright agrees: "The swim team and women's basketball and field hockey and so on would have to face the market, meaning they would be gone."

In addition, he writes, the big football schools would be less inclined to continue sharing their revenue with smaller schools.

"After all, no self respecting players' union will allow big state universities to prop up small private schools in football by conference alignments, guaranteed pay days, and television games," he writes. "We've all seen union thugs in Ohio and Wisconsin operate. Do you think for a minute that the union will allow Ohio State and Wisconsin's huge fan bases continue to subsidize, say, Northwestern by way of shared Big Ten revenues?"

David Haugh of the Chicago Tribune writes that people are forgetting how valuable a college scholarship, and the education it bestows, is.

"According to the Northwestern University undergraduate financial aid office, the cost of attendance for one year on the Evanston campus is $63,228. That covers room and board, tuition, books, fees and personal expenses," he writes. "According to former Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter and his merry band of disenfranchised Wildcats, it amounts to almost nothing. The value of a free college education at a prestigious institution bordering a world-class city apparently never has been worth less."

Although the players have set the wheels in motion this week, it could be years before the government makes a ruling on their union application and the resulting legal actions are concluded. There's no doubting that big-time college sport in the US is changing, as the spread of posh, gleaming sports facilities and million-dollar coaching salaries attests.

"Realistically, this is likely the beginning of a protracted legal fight, with the school and the NCAA contending that athletes aren't employees," Sports Illustrated's Stewart Mandel writes. "But it's still a potentially revolutionary, if largely symbolic, moment."