Featured Column, Column, Football

Northwestern Football Players’ Victory Means Change is Coming

All jobs come with rules. That’s a universally accepted fact. When you accept a job, you accept the regulations that come with it. That might mean anything from a dress code to a language policy, in jobs ranging from an executive assistant to a camp counselor.

How about being a college football player? That’s a job in itself—all the practice, dedication, and work studying up on other teams. There are a lot of rules for college football players, too, and most of them are pretty reasonable. Some, though, seem less reasonable and more restrictive, limiting players’ abilities to express themselves. Would you be okay with someone controlling every aspect of your social media presence?

For the past few years, Northwestern University has been in the news for how it treats its football players. Under the old system, the university controlled every aspect of life for players, setting down regulations that were, in some cases, absolutely ridiculous. Social media may seem like a fun, harmless place—as long as you’re smart about what you post—but Northwestern opted not to trust its athletes, instead enforcing strict regulations of what the players could post, if anything, online. If coaches did not approve, players could not post.

Northwestern also decided to control the players’ media presence. While it makes sense that the team would be involved in how the players address the media, the rules became overly strict and just served to control even more of the players’ lives. They were only allowed to speak to university-approved journalists, and could only discuss a limited range of topics. With restrictions on discussing injuries, practice, strategy, and more, it’s hard to imagine that players could give interesting, engaging interviews. It was often reinforced that players had to give only positive answers about teammates, coaches, and the team.

In the team handbook, players were reminded that they were representing the team, and thus would be closely monitored by coaches at all times. Confidentiality was key, the handbook said. Players could not address any team matters with anybody on the outside. To a certain degree, this makes sense. You definitely don’t want players running their mouths and revealing key strategies or potential surprises before gametime. But again, this restricted players far too much. They were told that they would be closely monitored and warned not to discuss anything with outsiders. This doesn’t sound like a welcoming atmosphere.

As you might have guessed, this didn’t go over well with many of the players. And for good reason—Northwestern essentially assumed the worst of its student-athletes. The university assumed that football players would post foolish things on social media, so naturally their posts would need to be approved before going online. It assumed that they would reflect poorly on the team and school in media interviews, so it sought to control every aspect of media appearances for the players. And it assumed that players would discuss team secrets to anyone and everyone, so of course the logical reaction is to monitor athletes closely.

Over the past three years, Northwestern players have taken steps to change their situation. It all began in 2013, when then-quarterback Kain Colter met with the College Athletes Players Association to open a discussion about the treatment of players at the university. In the following years, the players would experience both triumph and defeat in the legal process. First, they were told they could unionize—but following an appeals process, the decision was overturned.

The story didn’t end there, however. As ridiculous regulations continued to be the norm at Northwestern, players continued to challenge them and gain recognition as employees of the school. And the Wildcats finally succeeded late last month.

In an advice memorandum dated Sept. 22 but made public last week, the National Labor Relations Board general counsel found that Northwestern student-athletes are university employees. As such, the counsel said, Northwestern must lift the restricting regulations placed on players and give them freedom of expression. Of course, Northwestern protested the ruling. Al Cubbage, the school’s vice president of university relations, criticized the NLRB in a statement, arguing that the football players are primarily students and not athletes. This is an absolutely ridiculous argument. The average student isn’t restricted and closely monitored. The average student can discuss anything with the media. Northwestern can’t have it both ways. If the football players are primarily students, then restrictions should be lifted. If they are primarily athletes, then they should be treated as employees. Because they are primarily athletes and employees, restricting their freedom of speech and expression violates labor laws, so the NLRB was absolutely correct in its ruling.

To a degree, Northwestern has recognized how ridiculous the handbook was. It has been changed during the course of the legal proceedings to reflect a friendlier, more reasonable atmosphere. According to the updated handbook, players may now speak directly to the media without going through the athletic director’s office, and may give honest answers to any questions posed to them, although they are still encouraged to credit the entire team for individual success. While they still cannot speak freely about injuries and medical situations on the team—citing HIPAA, the team reinforced some stringent measures on injury talk—they are generally free to discuss what they please.

It isn’t just Northwestern that will be impacted by this decision—all the other private schools in the FBS would be held accountable to these new standards. That means Boston College, too. Now that the NLRB has made it clear that it considers players to be employees of the school, it is imperative that BC lifts any similar restrictions on football players to avoid an embarrassing debacle like this. This decision is sure to spark a reaction in the NCAA, and BC doesn’t want to be on the wrong side of history in this case.

Although the decision will affect more than just Northwestern, it all boils down to the courageous actions of Wildcat football players. This is a huge step forward for a group of people who have been fighting for their rights for several years now. As of right now, they are recognized as employees of the school. Right off the bat, this ruling came with some benefits. They’re not living in a ridiculously strict atmosphere. They have freedom of expression and speech.

But there are other repercussions from this decision—repercussions that might lead into more controversial conversations and decisions. Namely, we must decide whether college football players are employees.

If they’re employees of the school, they need more than just freedom of expression. Employees get paid. So does this mean that the NLRB is ruling that the football players should be paid? It didn’t exactly address the issue of compensation directly, but it’s not hard to see how the ruling will spark more debate over whether college athletes should be paid for their work. If they are not employees, but rather students, they should be treated as all the other students and retain their freedom of expression. If they are employees, then it is in violation of labor laws not to pay them. The gray area between the two does not exist. It has to be one or the other, and the NCAA, NLRB, and member universities must make a clear decision.

This NLRB ruling is a significant step forward for athletes. For now, it gives them more freedom. But in the future, it could mean much, much more—and reshape college sports forever.

Featured Image by Charlie Neibergall / AP Photo

October 12, 2016