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Is This the Last NCAA Opening Football Weekend Without a Players Union?

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Will true freshman Northwestern running back Justin Jackson be a school employee come next season? (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

Labor Day.

It was created to honor the "economic and social achievements of American workers" back in the 1880s.

More than 120 years later, it marks the unofficial end of summer, signals the start of school for kids across the Bay State and offers many a three-day weekend.

Labor Day 2014 marks a milestone for college athletics. It may be the final Labor Day before college football athletes are allowed to unionize.

Quarterbacks of the world unite!

That move would have lasting and, for many, unforeseen consequences for male and female athletes.

Pat Fitzgerald was a badass when he played linebacker for Northwestern back in the 1990s.

Yes, you read that right. "Northwestern" and "badass" in the same sentence. Fitzgerald, at the tender age of 31, became Northwestern's coach back in 2006 following the unexpected death of Randy Walker.

This offseason, much of the energy generated surrounding his football team has been created by its vote to consider forming a players' union last spring. The Chicago office of the National Labor Relations Board recognized scholarship football players as Northwestern employees, allowing the team to negotiate playing and work conditions. The full National Labor Relations Board is considering an appeal of the vote filed by the school. A final decision is expected sometime this fall.

Fitzgerald has some simple advice for those who want to unionize the participants in college athletics.

"Sometimes you've got to be careful what you wish for," he told USA TODAY Sports earlier this month. "When you're not allowed or you don't think through all the unintended consequences of your decisions, you look back at times and you reflect."

The lines are fairly clear.

The players and those pushing for certification believe they are employees of the university. They are performing a job, like a professor, teaching assistant, executive assistant or cook. Playing football, they say, is unrelated to the university's educational mission. Therefore, the players are regular workers rather than student-athletes.

In a legal brief, the College Athletics Players Association said Northwestern and its backers have "enormous self-interest in maintaining the system whereby the universities, coaches and athletic directors, the NCAA, and others ó who do not risk concussion and other injury ó share multi-millions in revenue generated by the players' labor."

Northwestern, which was supported by the NCAA in opposing the move, argued the opposite. "Athletics are an integral aspect of the educational mission of Northwestern and other private and public universities," the school said in its pleading to the full NLRB board. "Northwestern is not in the 'business' of football; the 'business' of the University is education, and football and other intercollegiate athletic programs are an integral component of the educational process."

Like many news topics in 2014, this has become politicized. But we're not about politics here. The issue here is one of simple economics, common sense, and in the end, possibly even Title IX herself.

The current system prohibits college athletes from earning a salary or stipend beyond their athletic grant-in-aid, and making money off their own likenesses. Those rules are foolish. Steve Spurrier and Nick Saban have argued that athletes should be allowed to earn money outside of football, or be paid something beyond their scholarship, housing and food costs.

Far too many people, however, discount the value of a full athletic scholarship. My son is receiving about two-thirds of his collegiate costs paid for by the U.S. Army. Upon graduation, he'll own Uncle Sam four years of active duty, and four years in the reserves. Ask any parent or student who is paying tuition bills, or student loans, about how much a full scholarship is worth.

Thousands of dollars and years to pay off those loans. The men and women who play sports in college do work hard and long hours. They are, however, rewarded for their efforts and enter into that agreement by choice, not force.

Allowing football players at Northwestern to unionize means that collegiate athletes elsewhere will quickly move to do the same.

Dealing with the inevitable increased costs and regulation surrounding unionization of college athletes will be much easier for large, state schools to absorb. The Floridas, the Ohio States and the UCLAs of the world should easily assimilate. Their scale makes change not quite as disruptive.

In 2013, the University of Texas' college football program made an $83 million profit. Michigan was $58 million in the black, while Notre Dame, Alabama and Florida (which went 4-8 on the gridiron, by the way) each made between $46-49 million.

Plenty of money for everyone. Paying athletes a stipend, in addition to their scholarship/room and board, and allowing them to profit off their own images, or work and earn income on their own, is both natural and fair.

It is the smaller public schools and private colleges, who run their athletic programs on the margins, that will bear the burden of a full-unionized college-athletic workforce.

College athletes, whether they be football players, swimmers and softball players, are not experiencing the type of onerous working conditions that led to the infamous Ford Labor riots in 1937.

Fix the system, please. Allow athletes player-only meetings (like they are already doing at Northwestern), force better monitoring of injuries and academics, and engage in a realistic push toward a 100 percent graduation rate. Those are all attainable goals without the all-or-nothing perimeters of unionization.

Subjecting a football, track or swim practice to the same rules reserved for the admissions office is foolish and impractical. If you're working to condition someone to run 10,000 meters in the NCAA championships, are they entitled to a 15-minute smoke break every four hours?

The additional costs brought on by this change will eventually push smaller, private schools, to drop non-revenue producing sports.

And with each scholarship cut in a male-dominated sport, a female scholarship will be cut as well. This is especially true when budgets begin to shrink. Title IX guarantees gender equity and equality of opportunity. It does not mandate the preservation of athletic scholarships for sports that don't make money or sustain themselves.

A rising tide lifts all boats, and a receding tide does the opposite.

While big-time college football may be the target of this latest union movement, its impact will no doubt be felt far beyond the gridiron.


The OBF column is written by award-winning journalist and Bay State native Bill Speros. Hit up Bill on his Obnoxious Boston Fan Facebook page, on Twitter @realOBF or at his
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. Thanks always for reading.

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