By Alex Entz
It’s good to see Northwestern football on the front page of ESPN.com again. When it last happened, in October, it was because our ‘Cats were ranked 16th headed into a Homecoming match against an unbeaten, top-five-ranked Ohio State team.
The second front-page appearance was, of course, due to their recent efforts to unionize.
For the uninformed: the ‘Cats quarterback this past year, Kain Colter, handed in a petition with the National Labor Relations Board, on behalf of the Wildcat football team, this past week, seeking to be considered a union. Colter has become something of a figurehead for the movement after the paperwork was filed; every major news outlet has picked up the story, and Colter has done a series of high-profile interviews.
At its heart, the issue is representation, though the broad ends are wide-ranging. On the less contentious end of it, the players are hoping for concussion reform, additional educational resources, and scholarships that will not be revoked if a student athlete gets injured while wearing team colors. On the more contentious end, there are calls for additional money from the universities, as well as for the ability to make money from sponsorships. For the athletes, having a union bring the NCAA to the table is an obvious way to kickstart discussions on these topics.
That said, it’s not clear that unionizing is the best way to fix these problems. Unions tend to have a lot of unwanted consequences—lockouts, decreased quality, and increased costs to universities that often cannot cover the costs of their programs already. It’s easy to see problems and “solutions” now; it’s much harder to gauge how those solutions will impact the future. But, of course, it is the job of the policy maker to consider both the seen and unseen, as Bastiat once said.
More obviously, there should be hesitation regarding considering student athletes to be “employees” of the university. We often lose sight of the fundamental truth that athletes are, above all else, students. They deserve to be treated as such; anything less would be degrading, no matter the origin or good-heartedness of its intentions. Their decision to participate in a sport is apart from that of their academic commitments, and it is apart from the truest mission of the university itself. Indeed, the athletes at Northwestern are not just athletes, they are world-class students. I have no doubt that some I have known will go on to become doctors, captains of finance and industry, politicians. I get uneasy when the conversation turns to making their touchdowns and tackles the product of an employee contract rather than the product of love of sport and university. It seems to sever the connection between who they are on the gridiron, and who they are in the classroom.
Such concerns should motivate a desire for players to find other ways to more aggressively lobby the NCAA to engage with them in serious conversations about serious reforms. My feeling is that most people support the basic changes Colter and the rest of the NU team want; though unions may not be the best way to get there, their concerns are legitimate and well-founded. The NCAA needs to step up and meet with Colter to settle some of these issues in a timely manner.
Regardless of whether or not the unionization attempt works, I’ll continue to confess an immodest amount of pride in our B1G Cats. Only at Northwestern would the same year see Rose Bowl contenders bring long-ignored issue of labor relations to the fore.
Photo by West Point