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HUTTON: Northwestern’s move to unionize is step in right direction

KaColter Ramogi HumLeo Gerard Tim Waters

Kain Colter, Ramogi Huma, Leo Gerard, Tim Waters

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Updated: March 3, 2014 5:59PM



The visceral, immediate reaction for Tony Karras at the thought of the football team at his alma mater, Northwestern, applying for union representation, wasn’t at all positive.

His brothers on the football team were ingrates, he thought, who haven’t had enough time to value the $200,000 in scholarship money they received. In his world view, the college experience was priceless.

College football is a take-it-or-leave-it proposition.

No one has to play football.

For those players, in that time, it was just a fabulous, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. They felt privileged. Their life would change in ways they could never have imagined.

Karras, a Hobart graduate, played for the Wildcats from 1984-87. He has a bucketful of great memories that he’ll take to his grave about his time in Evanston.

That was always enough for him.

“We were arguably the worst team in the country,” Karras said. “Yet, we were treated like kings. We took chartered flights. We ate at training tables. We had everything paid for.”

Those fuzzy, happy memories are starting to be muddled up for a new generation of players. Most don’t have a clue what it means to be an activist but they are attune to dollar signs.

Money, colossal amounts of it, has turned college football into something like a monolithic corporation. The individual schools are the subsidiaries. And the big ones, like Alabama, Texas, Ohio State and Notre Dame, are in it to win. They spare no cost in pursuing their national championship aspirations.

Consider that Notre Dame just signed an apparel deal with Under Armour that is estimated to be worth $100 million.

Clemson employs an offensive coordinator that makes $1.3 million per year.

The Wall Street Journal ranks Texas as the most valuable football program in the country. The Longhorns are worth $875 million. The Wildcats even made the chart. Their value is $154 million, which makes them the 40th richest, according to the WSJ.

There is evidence now that lays out the risk of brain trauma incurred from repeated impact and there is this larger problem: The demands of playing football in season almost certainly rise around or above the 40-hour limit when every little chore is accounted for.

That would be game day, travel time, film sessions and on-the-field practice time, which can’t exceed 20 hours per week.

Naturally, the question for the players, as the big money flows through the system like oxygen, becomes: Are we being treated fairly? And are we student-athletes (The NCAA’s preference) or are we employees, who also happen to be student-athletes? It’s a complicated question, which won’t be answered soon.

The NCAA is going to fight official union recognition at every legal juncture — that is assuming the National Federation of Labor recognizes Northwestern’s application for union status.

There is no case study for what could or should happen here.

Even Kain Colter, the former Northwestern quarterback who is the spokesperson for the College Athletes Players Association, which is the umbrella organization that Northwestern applied for unionization through, acknowledges that he has no idea whether they will be successful at organizing.

But Colter and CAPA are smart. For now, the goal is for them to have a formal voice in the major decisions that affect college athletics today.

They want options for long term health benefits.

They want all schools to honor four-year scholarships. They are currently renewable every year and some coaches have been known to run players off if they aren’t good enough.

They want a small monthly spending stipend for essentials, like food, for the players.

What they are asking for is to be heard in a serious, meaningful way, by the decision makers. It doesn’t seem like too much to ask for. I’m betting the two sides work something out. There is way too much money at stake for this to get ugly. What is also true is the game that Karras played 30 years ago is a much different now. The bloom on the rose has burst. It’s time for the NCAA to recognize that and pay up.



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