The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

March 29, 2014

It’s not your father’s gridiron any more

From The Back Porch

By Nerissa Young

— Somewhere around the time The Beaver left home and Lassie found Timmy the last time, college football traded its love of the game for love of money. And somewhere around the lip-sync scandal of Milli Vanilli, fans became more interested in drunken partying at parking lot tailgates than in watching the game.

It’s no surprise that college football programs have drifted from their mission, too. Begun as a way to engender school pride and provide a safer outlet for violent behavior than a knock-down, dragout on the college green, the mission to educate young people fell by the wayside faster than a fast-food wrapper on the interstate.

At least everywhere but Northwestern University. There, they and Pollyanna hold out hope in the ivory tower that it’s the degree, not the season record, that makes young people great.

The problem is the Region 13 director of the National Labor Relations Board, who governs the territory that includes Northwestern, doesn’t agree. He told the university earlier this week to let scholarship players on the football and men’s basketball teams vote whether to organize a union.

They are not players; they are employees. This decision may rock so-called amateur college sports, but Board director Peter Sung Ohr simply said out loud what everybody knows is true — it ain’t about the game, it’s about the money.

Here’s what happened. On Jan. 28, a group of football players organized the College Athletes Players Association with plans to unionize and bargain collectively with Northwestern for better health and safety benefits.

Rightly so, players are concerned about the effects of long-term injuries. They acknowledged in their pleading that players don’t want a salary because that would violate NCAA rules. But the year-round responsibilities of being a football player and tight controls over their personal lives make them university employees under the law.

CAPA’s attorneys wrote, “But an employee is an employee, whether his compensation is generous or parsimonious, whether he has excellent or tenuous job security, and whether his employer is enlightened or unreasonable.”

Noting that Northwestern football yields a net annual profit of between $5 million and $10 million, the attorneys added that athletes who receive a “full ride” receive annual compensation of nearly $63,000. Further, players are required to allow the university to use their names, likenesses and images any way Northwestern sees fit and must waive their rights to compensation for such.

In essence, the college team operates much like a professional NFL franchise with players spending 50 to 60 hours per week on football duties.

Northwestern is a private university whose football team has a 97 percent graduation rate, the highest in the country.

President Morton Shapiro said during the hearing: “The success of the athletic program is inextricably linked to the educational mission of the university, especially with regard to the academic and personal development of student-athletes and the institution’s commitment to honoring the highest standards of amateur competition. It is not measured solely by wins and losses.”

Hmm. During the eight-year tenure of head football coach Pat Fitzgerald, the Wildcats have made five bowl appearances, enjoyed a 10-win season, finished one season with a No. 17 national ranking and amassed 50 victories to make Fitzgerald the winningest coach in school history.

In claiming the players are “temporary employees,” the university’s attorneys said: “First, unionization of Northwestern student-athletes would have a chaotic effect due to the wide variations between federal and state labor laws concerning union representation and collective bargaining. Second, many CAPA objectives cannot be achieved by collective bargaining with Northwestern due to NCAA regulations, which Northwestern has no power to change. Third, extending collective bargaining rights to Northwestern student-athletes will have Title IX ramifications and impact the school’s ability to offer athletic opportunities for all student-athletes.”

In other words, the sky will fall.

In his decision, Ohr noted athletes are recruited for their athletic, not academic, prowess. Players operate under special rules that do not apply to all Northwestern students; they don’t receive academic credit for football and do not receive academic supervision. Most important, Ohr said, Northwestern is a business.

He wrote, “Under the common law definition, an employee is a person who performs services for another under a contract of hire, subject to the other’s control or right of control, and in return for payment.”

He directed CAPA to plan and carry out an election so players can vote for representation.

If college football were about education only, players would not leave the team after freshman, sophomore or junior years to enter the NFL draft.

— Young is a Register-Herald columnist. E-mail:

© 2014 by Nerissa Young