The Northwestern Wildcats football team played their first intercollegiate game against Lake Forest in 1882. They have an all-time record of 503 wins, 642 losses and 44 ties. They have won their Big Ten conference championship eight times in their history.
Even more impressive than their exploits on the field are their achievements in the classroom. Northwestern consistently ranks among the national leaders in graduation rates among college football teams. Despite demanding stricter academic standards, the Evanston, Ill., campus has ensured their graduates live up to being a "student-athlete."
In the last three weeks, Northwestern football players have made history of a different sort -one that doesn't involve grade-point averages or touchdowns. They petitioned the National Labor Relations Board to be allowed to join the College Athletes Players Association and be represented by them.
Even crazier than the request was the response - a regional director said "yes."
According to Peter Sung Ohr, college players are not student- athletes who receive academic scholarships in return for competing for their school. They are actually "employees" and thus eligible to collectively bargain with Northwestern University, aka their "employer."
Ohr reached this far-flung conclusion by reasoning that these football players spend 40 to 50 hours a week doing sports-related activities during the season -often more than their class work - and they are essentially already being "paid" for their labors via their scholarships, which covers tuition, fees, room and board and is worth more than $61,000 a year.
Players who signed the petition in support of unionizing say they want more money than the value of their scholarships, better protection against injuries sustained playing football and ability to transfer to other schools more easily, especially if their playing time is reduced.
The university, as you might expect, did not concur with the regional director's ruling. "While we respect the NLRB process and the regional director's opinion, we disagree with it," Northwestern said in a prepared statement. "Unionization and collective bargaining are not the appropriate methods to address the concerns raised by student-athletes."
The National Collegiate Athletics Association, while not technically a part of the Northwestern case, is still the governing body of all college athletics and is also against Ohr's generous interpretation of their status.
The players are set to vote April 25 on joining the union. The school has a deadline of this week to file a request for a review of Ohr's ruling. For the union to have the legal right to bargain on the players' behalf, the majority of the 76 athletes eligible to vote would have to approve the deal.
Even after the results are tallied, the ballots will be kept secret while the legal process unfolds. The case is expected to be eventually resolved in federal court -conceivably winding its way all the way up to the Supreme Court.
If the ruling stands, it would affect only other private universities, such as the University of Southern California and Harvard University. The NRLB does not have jurisdiction over public universities.
There is a much larger issue here, and it's not about player safety or more money. It's about Big Labor using its clout to try to collude with the government to redefine the traditional employer-employee relationship. The Obama administration has encouraged this type of behavior, not considering the ultimate costs to the athletes and their schools.
If college players form unions, the universities will drop programs. It's that simple. The boundaries will have been irrevocably shattered. Better to do without than try to navigate this legal storm.
Athletes who want to earn big-money contracts and be represented by a union have those opportunities when they turn professional and join the NFL or the NBA. Those players are "employees" and, as such, the expectations are different. Pro players aren't required to earn a degree and turn in homework. They get paid to play. If they get hurt, they run the risk of losing out on their earnings potential. That's what every pro player understands when he signs that contract.
College players are still students and still maturing as individuals. They may have the raw natural talent to excel in their sport, but they lack the seasoning they receive by participating in the college experience. Labeling them "employees" is naive and cynical - it doesn't take into account the benefits of being a student-athlete and it suggests they are just "exploited" individuals at the mercy of the schools they compete for.
Exploited? These athletes will leave school without student loans or debt. They have their entire academic ride paid for in full in scholarships. They already are on a pedestal higher than other students who walk their hallowed campus halls. Now we want to further isolate them and give them privileges no one else is eligible for? Just because they can dunk a basketball or hit a home run?
Northwestern may boast some of the smartest football players in the country, but this is one of the dumbest decisions they might ever make.