I followed the NLRB testimony of Kain Colter yesterday with great interest. My primary source was Twitter, where some (@Rohan_NU, @AlexPutt02, @TeddyGreenstein) provided pretty solid reporting while others (who I will not publicize) did not. I am 100% in support of the Northwestern players seeking union representation. If you think that college athletics are not an exploitative endeavor, particularly in the revenue sports of football and men’s basketball, please stop right now and read Taylor Branch’s essay “The Shame of College Sports”.
I’m assuming you’ve now read the piece and are up to speed on how hideous the NCAA is. There are multiple attacks on its cartel status, and I am hopeful that Northwestern football and CAPA can be one strong force in the fight for players’ rights.
If you’re looking for an excellent, fact-oriented review of yesterday’s proceedings, read Lester Munson’s recap. My goal here is to address some of the common criticisms I've on Twitter (and elsewhere) from other athletes, fans, and purported journalists.
Frequent Criticisms and Responses
I categorize some of the criticisms as irrelevant arguments that miss the point entirely and have nothing to do with whether or not football players at Northwestern are effectively employees. These can be dismissed immediately. They merit no response.
- Football players are treated like kings.
- What about the non-revenue sport athletes? Do they get a union?
- These players know what the deal is and what they’re getting into.
- Wow, Kain must have a personal vendetta against the university.
There is another class of criticisms that is closely related to the first, but it is so pernicious that it does require a response. Again, this group does nothing to address the status of the players as employees.
- Northwestern treats its players better than other schools.
- This is an invalid argument, because it does nothing to diminish the status of football players as employees. Simply because an employer treats its employees better than other employers does not invalidate its employees’ right to representation and a voice.
- I’d love to have more of a say at my job, but bosses are bosses. They get the final say.
- This doesn’t have to be true. Workers can combat this through solidarity, which is exactly what the Northwestern football players are doing. It speaks volumes about the strength of position of the ruling class in America that workers are content to deny other workers greater rights simply because they themselves do not have those rights. When workers are willing to self-oppress, the bosses really have won.
- Gee, I’d love for my employer to pay my medical expenses.
- If you’re injured on the job, your employer is legally obligated to pay for your medical expenses (with a few exceptions). This is worker’s compensation, and the NCAA coined the term “student-athlete” in order for its members to avoid paying out workers comp benefits. Although Northwestern often pays medical expenses for injured players, it does so not out of any binding obligation. As such, players have no guaranteed rights.
The next group of criticisms is what I would call “distractionary”. Not only do they not address the central issue of employment, they dilute the entire discourse either by focusing on minutia or by making light of the process.
- How could he compare football to the military?
- Pat Fitzgerald and Jim Phillips have raging hard-ons for the military and military imagery. Every NU sporting event I’ve attended in the past 5+ years is brimming with militaristic jingoism. The football team trains with Navy Seals and wears absurd military-themed uniforms, and the university promotes the shit out of that stuff. How could Kain compare football to the military? Easy: the football program tells him that. He didn’t pull that comparison out of his ass; it’s so deeply ingrained in the culture of Northwestern athletics I’d be stunned if he hadn’t made that comparison. Nevertheless, this has NOTHING to do with the football players’ employment status. When critics latch onto one little statement like this, they are again ignoring the crux of the issue.
- Oh my god! He called the NCAA a dictatorship. What a dumb choice of words.
- Yay, semantics! Oh wait, this doesn’t disprove that players are employees either.
- Other snarky comments: “how does he know that’s his jersey that the school is selling?”
- Even if this is “just a joke”, it’s a pointless comment. It muddies the discussion and minimizes the importance of the players’ action.
The next major criticism is probably the most frequent one I’ve heard. It takes several forms, but they’re all essentially the same.
- These players are ungrateful and greedy. They get a free education. Isn’t that enough? Other students would love to get that free ride. How would they like to take out loans like other students?
- The delicious irony of this argument is that it acknowledges the compensation in exchange for work nature of playing football at Northwestern. It is not an argument against the employee status of the players at all. Furthermore, Northwestern’s own published financial aid materials suggest that most students receive substantial need-based scholarships from the university and that for the students who do take out student loans the average debt load after four years is $17,405. That’s not nothing, but it’s only roughly one-fourth the cost of enrollment for one year at Northwestern. Why is that relevant? Because the football players put in an enormous amount of work (50-60 hours/week often) in order not to pay tuition, and other students who do no work (especially no work that generates millions in revenues for the university) actually are not severely financially burdened. My point is that the “sweet deal” the football players get is hardly sweeter than that of the average student when you consider the amount of work done and the level of compensation received.
Then there are the arguments that seem to be at the heart of the university’s case. While these are generally germane, they are still rather flimsy.
- The players learn from football, therefore it is strictly an educational activity.
- I learn at my job, too. It’s still work. I’m still an employee.
- Even if the players are employees, they are simply temporary employees.
- This suggests that the university thinks the players have a legit case. By classifying players as temporary employees, the university takes away their right to bargain collectively. It’s a clever argument, but it’s nonsense and should be terrifying to most working people. It’s nonsense, because Northwestern now gives four-year scholarships to athletes essentially guaranteeing the employment relationship for a long-term period. It’s also nonsense, because the average NFL career is 3.2 years and yet NFL players have a long-established right to collective bargaining. It should be terrifying to working people, because classifying employees as temps relieves employers of any obligation to pay benefits. This is becoming more common across America, and I would be very dismayed if my employer could sign me to a four-year contract and call me a temp.
- A union is not the right way to address the players’ grievances.
- Jim Phillips had this to say: “Northwestern believes that our student-athletes are not employees and collective bargaining is therefore not the appropriate method to address these concerns. However, we agree that the health and academic issues being raised by our student-athletes and others are important ones that deserve further consideration.”
- This adheres to the party line that players are not employees, but pays lip service to the validity of their concerns. These concerns are nothing new and yet Phillips’ only suggested action is “further consideration.” That’s a bullshit statement. Translated it means “yeah, we’re not going to change anything.” Changes of the magnitude that the players are seeking do not come without a fight. Neither Northwestern nor any other NCAA member will voluntarily give up its considerable advantages over the players it exploits. There is no more effective way to force real change than through concerted collective action by players. That’s what a players' union would enable.
Pete Seeger, "Which Side Are You On?"