COLUMN: Union Talks Bring Up Bigger Issues

About a week ago, I was having a conversation with a friend in which I tried to explain why I think that college football is the greatest sport. It didn’t come easily. I grasped at straws, saying that maybe it was because I grew up on it in a state where we didn’t have any professional sports.

I don’t think that it comes down to the nurture aspect of college football, though, because even now as I have spent the last six years exposed to one of the greatest professional sports towns with the Red Sox, Celtics, Bruins, and Patriots-and lacking a truly competitive NCAA team to feed my love for the sport-I still feel a stronger inclination toward the amateur level.

After stumbling around for a while, trying to come up with a reasonable explanation for my feelings, I came up with the word “purity.”

It may be a naive viewing, but I love sitting down on a Saturday afternoon and watching a game in which the athletes don’t have any bigger source of motivation than winning, maybe for their schools, maybe for their teammates, and maybe even for themselves. It’s the pure competition, which I believe makes college football more engaging and exciting, that I love. On the highest level, every single game counts-one loss and your season could be over-and those games can come down to a single play.

Everything has to be tight, and the focus has to be on the field. They’re not playing for bigger contracts or bonuses, or trying to raise their stock as free agency approaches. Sure, there are exceptions-some players are improving their draft stock or vying for an individual award, but that accounts for a tiny percentage of players: according to a study by, only about 1.7 percent of college football players go on to play professionally.

So why am I writing this column now? The season is long over, the NFL draft is still a long way off, and I just pretty much admitted that I don’t think that event really influences much of the college football season.

On Tuesday, ESPN’s Outside the Lines broke a story about a group of Northwestern student-athletes, led by quarterback Kain Colter-who is being advised by Ramogi Huma, the president of the National College Players Association-that recently filed initial paperwork with the National Labor Relations Board to take the first steps toward unionization.

“This is about finally giving college athletes a seat at the table,” Huma told ESPN. “Athletes deserve an equal voice when it comes to their physical, academic, and financial protections.”

When you hear this news, it is nearly impossible not to jump to the debate that has been going on for years-whether college athletes should be paid. While the College Athletes Players Association, as the union would be called, says that pay would not be its first initiative, according to ESPN, Huma didn’t completely rule out the possibility of that pursuit in the future.

Part of me thinks that all of this makes sense. They work hard, so pay them. These players are the primary contributors to an enormous revenue stream for their universities, while often confronting significant risks. Football players especially face the risk of long-term injury, so why should they be treated like amateurs?

I can’t completely buy into this school of thought, though. I can’t get it out of my head that athletes already reap enough benefits to be considered properly compensated for their services-between tuition, room and board, book fees, tutoring services, and other perks such as clothing and an exclusive gym, I have a hard time thinking of athletes as a Germinale-esque exploited working class in need of unionization. That’s a lingering thought in my head that I could probably be talked out of. What I can’t be talked out of, though, is the fact that I don’t want to see college football turn into a bidding war.

Maybe I’m a sucker for a BCS-buster, but even with that era over, I see a huge issue with allowing colleges to offer salaries that will keep the top players going to the programs that can offer the best pay.

The top schools have enough recruiting pull as it is with their legacies alone-what college football doesn’t need is to polarize the recruiting pool even more as the top programs, which would almost inevitably have the most to spend on salaries, pull in every recruit due to a sheer number that they are willing and able to pay.

I don’t want to see every player, not just the select few who are playing for draft stock, start putting their interests above the team’s in search of a higher salary, be that at their current program or in the event of a transfer-or would it be a trade?

I don’t want to see those trades happen based on what a school may or may not be able to offer an athlete for the next season.

I don’t want to see a gap form between the top players on a team and the less-celebrated because of resentment over pay scale.

I don’t want college football to lose its magic of the unexpected-the trick plays, the one-in-a-million field goal attempt returns, and the all-or-nothing urgency that keeps me enthralled-to a conservative game in which players have contracts or salaries on their minds.

We don’t need another NFL. I’m all for protecting players and their right to be represented as far as their well-being is concerned, but going beyond that would destroy what makes college football great.


January 30, 2014