Northwestern Football Players and Unionization

imagesnrlbRecently, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) granted permission to a group of Northwestern football players who were asking to form a union. The NLRB didn’t grant them the union status – that is something that must be done by a vote, but in order to even get to the point of requesting a vote, the players had to get the NLRB to recognize the players as “employees”, something the NCAA and Northwestern (and all colleges) dispute.

Amidst all the hubbub surrounding this, I thought it would be worth showing what items the Northwestern players actually want to bargain for. Here is a link to their demands with descriptions, but here is the brief itemized list.

  1. Minimize college athletes’ brain trauma risks.
  2. Raise the scholarship amount.
  3. Prevent players from being stuck paying sports-related medical expenses.
  4. Increase graduation rates.
  5. Protect educational opportunities for student-athletes in good standing.
  6. Prohibit universities from using a permanent injury suffered during athletics as a reason to reduce/eliminate a scholarship.
  7. Establish and enforce uniform safety guidelines in all sports to help prevent serious injuries and avoidable deaths.
  8. Eliminate restrictions on legitimate employment and players ability to directly benefit from commercial opportunities.
  9. Prohibit the punishment of college athletes that have not committed a violation.
  10. Guarantee that college athletes are granted an athletic release from their university if they wish to transfer schools.
  11. Allow college athletes of all sports the ability to transfer schools one time without punishment.

None of these items, by the way, are “pay for play” – i.e. the players don’t think they should be paid in cash money for playing for Northwestern. The players freely admit that they are being paid – it is their scholarship.

If you look at these 11 items, they are completely and utterly reasonable. They are the kinds of things that I bet you would be surprised don’t already exist. Like, I bet you would be surprised that if a student gets an injury playing football, they might have to pay for fixing that themselves.

The one thing I’ve always said about unions, and I’m a big defender of unions, is that… well…. I don’t really like them. I’ve had one union job in my life, when I was a “courtesy clerk” (the politically correct term for “bag boy”) at a grocery store. I was paid 10 cents over minimum wage at that job, and the union required me to pay one hour of my pay each pay period as union dues. Now, the union was never going to go on strike for a bunch of courtesy clerks demanding better treatment, so this seemed like a lot of money to go out to get nothing in return.

Note, though, that while this was true (the union wouldn’t go on strike for me), the union did provide a way for courtesy clerks to move into cashier jobs, which could lead to much more pay. While the grocery store may have decided they would do that anyway, the fact that the union existed meant that the checkout clerk’s wages did not face the downward pressure to be more like courtesy clerk’s wages.

In any event, I’m also embarrassed by unions sometimes. You can find anecdote after anecdote about some union leader somewhere doing something illegal. But I’m kind of embarrassed by… my embarrassment. It always has troubled me that when a union person does something bad, we group that as “unions” being bad thing, but if the CEO of Enron does something bad, we don’t assume the CEO of, say, Walgreen’s Drug Stores is also “bad” and that the job of CEO should be eliminated.

OK, I’m drifting off a bit here. What I really wanted to do is talk about why I think unions exist, even though I’m not necessarily the biggest fan of them.

Unions exist because, well, management screwed up. Unions spring up because the management of an enterprise has decided not to give some benefits to people because they don’t feel they have to. They are, in many ways, an allergic reaction to bad management behavior. Like an allergy, you don’t want itchy eyes and you don’t want to be sneezing, but that is your body telling you there is a lot of crap in the air that is bad for you. The allergic reaction is the sign that something bad is going on and you need to do something about it.

When you look at the list of demands the Northwestern players are making, it is almost hard to believe they have to be made. It is shocking to think that if you get injured, you might have to pay out of pocket for that injury. It is shocking to think that if you are permanently injured, say, as a sophomore, your scholarship can be yanked, which most likely means you will have to leave the school. It is shocking how many restrictions are placed on the student-athlete to get a legitimate job in the offseason out of a fear of “cheating”.

Brief aside: I remember, anecdotally, a story of a basketball player at my alma mater (University of Michigan) who was getting an aeronautical engineering degree. For one, I was shocked that anybody could be pursuing engineering with the schedule of games and practices a basketball player would have. Secondly, as an engineering student myself, I knew implicitly how important summer internships and co-ops were for my future career, yet this was off-limits to the basketball player. I mean, this guy was not going to the pros. Yes, he had a scholarship, but he was put at a severe disadvantage with future employment opportunities because of NCAA rules!

One of the things I have said about unions, is that they aren’t needed if management behaves properly. If the NCAA had a rule that if you give a kid a scholarship, that’s a 4 year commitment and you can’t yank it if the player doesn’t perform well, there would be less complaints to form a union. If the NCAA had a rule that said you couldn’t yank a scholarship due to a career ending injury, there would be less complaints to form a union. If the NCAA had more flexibility with job seeking opportunities, there would be less complaints to form a union. And on and on.

I want to leave you with another thought experiment. Many industries, such as mine which makes silicon computer chips, don’t have unions. Why is that?  Well, generally speaking, we are very well compensated. We get very good vacation packages. We get great health care packages. I don’t have a time card. I can take long lunches if I want. I can work from home some days if I need to. Every 7 years, I get a sabbatical of 8 weeks, fully paid.

Now, what if my company, and all its competitors, looked around and decided that this was way too much compensation going to their employees?  They could demand that everybody punch in with a time card. And that we only get a 30 minute lunch. And that we should lose 1 of our vacation weeks. And that our salary should be 2/3 or 1/2 as much. And that the sabbatical program should be killed. if that happened across all the companies in the field (completely unlikely), a union movement would start in my industry so quickly your head would spin. And the people at the front of the line to create that union would be some of the people in neighboring cubes, who consider themselves libertarian and think unions are “communist”.


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