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Keith Strudler: Union For College Athletes?

It is Super Bowl Week, only four days before an excuse to eat nachos with four kinds of cheese and sandwiches on colored bread. Super Bowl week is like a giant vacuum. It pretty much sucks up all the attention for the greater part of everyone’s waking hours. If it doesn’t have Super Bowl tie, it’s not likely to get much press this week.

Which means you may have missed this story. Football players at Northwestern University this week applied to create a player’s union, the first page in what could be a long narrative for college sports. Through the National College Players Organization, an advocacy group for college athletes, over 30% of the Wildcat scholarship players signed on the legal application to form a union chapter. Regardless of the percentage, what’s clear is that the ship has left the harbor. Whether its sea worthy is still yet to be determined.

Not surprisingly, the NCAA is openly against this venture. College might be a time to explore your freedoms, but not if you play football. The NCAA referenced its focus on academics, even in light of recent reports of college athletics admissions and tutoring practices that suggest the contrary. Northwestern itself has been far more open minded, suggesting they welcome dialogue on the conditions of college athletes. Northwestern, one of the nation’s highest ranked universities for academics, if not athletes, can promote a kind of nuanced debate that the linear NCAA just can’t, not if they plan to continue in their headstrong ways.

Wildcat players seem most focused on four things: safer play, financial compensation, guaranteed scholarships, and improved academic conditions. Those could come in a myriad of forms, from more concussion protections to stipends for players. The details seem less articulated than the movement itself, which isn’t altogether surprising given its nature and relative youth. Let’s be honest. Think of this as a first draft of a term paper – I’m fairly certainly there’ll a rewrite.

The issues up for debate aren’t anything new. Athletes at top powers generate value far beyond their scholarships, with virtually no protection, in what amounts to a cartel. They’re overworked, underpaid, and aren’t really allowed to look for another job, which is what most of us would do if we felt the same way. And they might be taking their future wellness in their own hands just for the privilege. So it’s not like this is a new story; rather, just another chapter.

But life is often about timing. And right now, the clock says that the NCAA is launching its lucrative college football playoff next year. And more teams and conferences are creating networks and platforms designed to generate new revenue on top of old revenue. This year, bidding wars for college coaches have looked a bit like Powerball, led by high profile contracts at Alabama and Texas, where $5 million a year feels like a bargain. All the while, schools are increasingly under fire for kindergarden classes for athletes and concussion risks that make playing football only marginally safer than staring in Spiderman on Broadway. In other words, if they were writing a chapter about the here and now in big time college sports, it would be titled, “Hypocracy.”

So the narrative the NCAA used to be able to control is now taking a life of its own. The phrase “student-athlete” protected the organization for over 50 years, reminding average fans of what was supposedly the focus of this whole enterprise. But now, even the most casual of fans might recognize the irony in that descriptive. The NCAA is a victim of its own destiny.

So while a bunch of renegade jocks at some brainy school up north might once have been nary a concern, today that may not be the case. Today, more than a few college sports fans might see that story about Northwestern and say, “you know, those kids are right.” That’s not the response you’d have seen 10 or 20 years ago, when they’d be labeled simply a bunch of spoiled kids getting a free ride. Whether the NCAA can turn back time is to be determined, but certainly not simple with the upcoming spectacle that is the NCAA tournament, where you’ll hear the phrase “student athlete” more than say, pick-and-roll.

Of course, you won’t hear much of that narrative at all this week, Super Bowl week that it is. If it’s not about the game itself, to most people, as the NCAA hopes, it’s just a lot of noise.

Keith Strudler is chair of the communication department at Marist College and director for the Marist College Center for Sports Communication.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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