The first — and most important — test for Northwestern players attempting to unionize the football program began to unfold Tuesday, when a hearing commenced before the National Labor Relations Board’s regional office in Chicago.
The question, which will determine whether an effort to form a union may proceed, is whether the players fall within the definition of “employees.”
“It truly is a job,” former Wildcats quarterback Kain Colter said during his testimony, via the Chicago Tribune. “There is no way around it.”
Cain explained that his work includes hours of practice and preparation for games. “[T]he guys on the other side of the ball want to rip your head off,” Colter said. “The plays are changing every week. It’s like war.
“I like to think of it like the military/Navy SEALs. They spend months and weeks preparing for operations. It’s the same thing as football. We spend months getting ready for our operations.”
As explained by the New York Times, Colter arrived at Northwestern intent on becoming an orthopedic surgeon. He testified that he was steered away from a chemistry class before his freshman year, toward less rigorous studies. He is now pursuing a psychology degree.
That training in psychology may have helped Colter during cross examination from a Northwestern lawyer. After explaining that he receives roughly $75,000 per year in compensation for his efforts, Colter was asked if he received a check from the school paying for his tuition.
“The university pays itself,” Colter replied.
Which leads to another troubling point, from the perspective of the schools. The actual education the player receives doesn’t actually cost the school anything; it’s just another student added to class. If anything, the other students who pay full or partial tuition are subsidizing the folks on scholarship, since the school isn’t actually writing a check for the player’s attendance.
That speaks directly to the question of whether the players are receiving fair value of the effort, the preparation, and the risk. And whether they can truly get the full value of their education when required to devote so much time to the football program.
“It makes it hard for you to succeed,” Colter said. “You can’t ever reach your academic potential with the time demands. You have to sacrifice, and we’re not allowed to sacrifice football.”
The hearing will continue through Friday, and the local NLRB office is expected to issue a ruling within a month. The losing party will then inevitably appeal the decision to the full NLRB in Washington, and the situation surely is destined to land in the courts after that.
Regardless of how the sausage gets made, it’s about time that college football players realize they’re getting the short end of things — and it’s about time they started standing up and saying so.
Change is needed. Change is coming. As the Nobel laureate Tony Horton would say, “Change is good.”