Earlier this year, when the news first broke that some of Northwestern’s football players were taking steps toward unionizing, I wrote a column explaining why I thought that unionizing was a dangerous step for student-athletes to take. I wrote about a desire for the purity of the sport of college football-where athletes play for the love of the game and their schools, not for themselves or their salaries.
A couple of months later, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) has ruled in favor of the student-athletes, allowing them to form a union, thus classifying the students as employees of the university.
Toward the beginning of one of the greatest sports movies of all time, Miracle-which, if you’re not familiar with it (shame on you), tells the story of the 1980 Olympic men’s hockey team and its unlikely journey to the gold medal-the newly formed team goes to a bar. The team is made entirely of current or recently graduated college students from all over the country, but with significant representation from the University of Minnesota and Boston University.
Soon, the conversation between rivals heats up, and Jack O’Callahan, a BU player, still heated over the idea of having to play with Rob McClanahan of Minnesota, springs into a dialogue with Ralph Cox of UNH.
“Why’d you want to play college hockey?” O’C asks.
At first, Cox laughs it off, saying that he plays for the girls, but then he admits thinking that playing college hockey would help him get to the NHL. O’C has a different answer, though.
“Well, I wanted to win a National Championship,” he says, and he goes on to tell the story of a national championship game between the rival programs that culminates when McClanahan “steals the ring right off [O’C’s] fingah.”
It’s a Disney movie. The dialogue is fabricated, and a mid-practice fight between O’C and McClanahan never happened. Instead, those elements were added in order to illustrate what was the state of the rivalry at the time that was bigger than individuals and sprung from the schools’ long history of getting in each others’ way along the road to a national championship.
With the recent unionization of student-athletes, what we now have is the potential for that spirit to be lost in a greater game-a financial one. Did O’C, Cox, and McClanahan deserve certain rights, such as ones that would protect them-their scholarships and their liability for medical expenses-in the event of career-ending injuries? Of course, and in the immediate future, that seems to be one of the union’s and the National College Players Association’s (NCPA) most important goals-to protect student-athletes.
The NCPA and the union should not be the ones worrying about it, though. If the intent of these unionizing measures is solely to protect the student-athletes, the NCAA should be held responsible for making sure that athletes are treated well, not organizations outside of it. As the governing body of collegiate athletics, it should come down to the NCAA to assure that its players feel safe, or at least that they will be protected in the event that something happens to them.
The NCAA has failed to do so, however, and now groups have been formed that will put pressure on the organization for protection and will undoubtedly push further issues. When it comes down to it, the NCAA has created an enormous problem for itself.
The immediate goals of the union and the NCPA are admirable, but with the precedent set for a group of athletes to unionize, more and more players from around the country could move in that direction. With protections achieved, the unions and NCPA could move on to the topic that my last column focused on-payment.
Take to Twitter and you’re likely to see plenty of buzz on the idea. A simple search will find plenty of statements alluding to support of the payment of student-athletes.
If you share this opinion, then this is all well and good. If you’re like me, however, you find this worrisome. If you’re the NCAA, you should be in DEFCON 1.
It may be too late. The NCAA’s rigidity in its regulations and how it deals with student-athletes make it difficult for athletes to lobby for change, and as a result athletes need organizations like the NCPA and unions in order to meet their needs-which, as athletes told CNN, are better medical coverage, concussion testing, four-year scholarships, and the possibility of being paid. If I were in charge, I would start doing damage control immediately-listen to the wants and needs of athletes under my jurisdiction and learn to be more flexible. I don’t think the NCAA has to go as far as to agree to let athletes give up their amateur status for pay, but it does need to listen to other demands, or even open up to the idea of slightly larger-yet standardized from player to player so as not to initiate pay-related competition between schools-stipends.
It’s not 1980 anymore. College sports are a big business, but that doesn’t mean that sports should evolve into a completely financially motivated game when it comes to the athletes.
Players still love their sports and their schools just like O’C and McClanahan did, and the pride of playing for your school, the free education, and the experience that players gain-not to mention increased prospects for professional salaries in the coming years-should be enough. It’s not, though, because of the risk that they take on the field, court, or ice, and their fear that the NCAA won’t take care of them if those risks are realized.
Eventually, USA hockey turned to NHL players to fill its Olympic rosters, leaving behind the amateur status that the 1980 team held. It was a step that USA hockey administrators chose to take, but not one that I would be in favor of if the NCAA chose to do the same thing.
The way things are going, though, and thanks to the organization’s mishandling of its power, the forfeit of amateur status is becoming more and more likely, leaving behind the idea of college sports wherein athletes represent their schools rather than themselves, in favor of a bidding war.