Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Know Your Rights

On Sunday, Sports Illustrated published a brief piece by Brendan Maloy with a puzzling headline:



It struck me as odd, because I’ve not read any credible report that suggested otherwise. I have seen pieces by scare mongering hacks raising the possibility of Fitzgerald leaving NU if the players vote to unionize, but those hold as much weight as Henry Bienen’s ridiculous assertion that NU would drop out of Division I athletics if the union vote succeeds.

Turns out that was a question posed by an NU player. CBS Sports’s Jeremy Fowler had the original report, and SI just hit a few points covered in Fowler’s write-up. The longer CBS story reveals several interesting arguments that NU is presenting to staff, players, and families. I’d like to touch on some of them here, with my observations.


When asked by a player what recourse is available if the vote passes and a player wants out, Northwestern said they would be "stuck with the union for a minimum of one year, even if everyone changed their mind."

"And if the union tells you they would just walk away if the players change their mind, don't believe this for a minute," Northwestern says. "It is extremely difficult to get rid of a union once it is voted in."

This is a brazen, but unsurprising, scare tactic that essentially equates unions with parasites. It’s here that I think the university’s overall attitude towards unions shines through. NU will fight to the death to prevent ANY union forming on its campus. There’s an ideological opposition to unions at play here, and it usually takes the form of “change is needed, true, but a union isn’t the appropriate mechanism” without explicit stating WHY a union isn’t appropriate.


When asked if a player that votes "no" is still part of a union if it gets majority vote, Northwestern confirms yes and adds that the player would be "stuck with whatever the union negotiates." Northwestern tells a player that the current benefit of going home for a family emergency might not be available after a majority vote because "that would be subject to negotiation with the union." "The union's agenda, which is set by the union leaders, may not take into account the specific things that are important to you as an individual," Northwestern states Fitzgerald later adds…

Here we have the ever-common anti-union appeal to the individual over the group. This appeal is deliciously ironic within the context of football, which is a team sport that subjugates the individual’s interests to that of the group perhaps more than any other. Fitzgerald is in the odd position of suggesting that union leaders might not have the individual’s best interests in mind when setting an agenda. Substitute “Northwestern” or “NCAA” for “union leaders”, and this argument is essentially the union’s best selling point: it gives the players a guaranteed voice. NU also intimates that players could lose “the current benefit of going home for a family emergency”. But why? Surely this is something a union would ensure to codify in its negotiations. It seems to me that NU is (not so) subtly hinting that it might seek to revoke that benefit in negotiations.


When asked about non-union mechanisms for change, Northwestern cites the looming NCAA changes giving power to the five major football conferences and the school's longstanding advocacy for student rights -- leadership in maximum allowable benefits to student-athletes, the team's "Leadership Council," the school's participation in the Student-Athlete Advisory Committee, Fitzgerald's position on the AFCA board and athletic director Jim Phillips' election as president of National Association of Collegiate Athletic Directors. Voting no would help players "pursue this alternative path to continue the national discussion," says Northwestern, adding that electing a union will not give players immediate access to NCAA reform. "I ask that you let history be your guide, and give Northwestern and me an opportunity to prove that we deserve your trust and confidence as you consider your vote."

This whole section is laughable. If players do “let history…guide” them, they will recognize that waiting on the NCAA to change voluntarily is a fool’s errand. We’re talking about an institution that was founded in large part to limit players’ rights and schools’ liabilities. That NU, Fitzgerald, and Jim Phillips seem to be true believers in the “student-athlete” mythology is both terribly disappointing and not at all surprising. It’s disappointing, because the “student-athlete” sham is so blatant and so well-documented that it’s impossible not to question the intelligence and intentions of those in power who still cling so steadfastly to it. It’s not at all surprising, because none of NU, Fitzgerald, or Phillips has ever been forward-thinking or progressive. Beyond that, this argument does not establish why a union would stymie the path of reform that NU advocates, which points back to NU’s simple ideological opposition to unions.


Northwestern tells parents change will happen faster through NCAA reform than through unionizing, which could "take several years before the issue whether our players are employees entitled to unionize finally is resolved."

Again, the NCAA is reactive with respect to players’ rights and will always do the bare minimum it deems necessary to protect its own ass. That NU has aligned itself with the NCAA as opposed to its own players speaks volumes in my mind about the university’s commitment to players’ rights.


Both parents and staffers ask about the issue of taxation for employees on scholarship, and Northwestern says it's a complicated issue that ultimately would be up to the IRS. Northwestern adds the taxation issue is one of many uncertainties with unionization. "Anybody who tells you that they do know how this will all play out is fooling themselves," Northwestern said.

While this is obviously a question for the IRS, and one which I am in no way qualified to answer, a more honest answer would be that the union vote will not affect the employee status of football players. That’s already been decided, and that is precisely why NU is fighting the initial NLRB ruling. Whatever tax implications there are will exist regardless of how players vote.


The summation of all this is that NU wants to protect the status quo as much as possible. To say “we agree that reforms are needed” and then to oppose a player-organized movement to negotiate reforms reveals that NU has no intention of ceding its absolute power over the doings of its football players. I believe that NU is not nearly as frightened by the uncertainties of a football players union as it is the number one certainty of a football players union: players will have a unified, legally guaranteed voice in their own employment conditions. Fitzgerald views his power in much the same way that Charlton Heston viewed his sidearm: you’ll have to pry it “from my cold, dead hands”.  That is the best way to understand NU’s opposition to the union, since NU otherwise claims it shares many of the same objectives. To think, though, that the sorts of changes necessary to make college football a just enterprise for its players will come about via the good will of coaches, universities, and the NCAA is hopelessly na├»ve.


Throughout this whole process I’ve often thought of the old Frederick Douglass gem, one I hope the NU football players remember:

“Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them, and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or both. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress.”



The Clash - "Know Your Rights"