Photo credit: Northwestern University’s Ryan Field, by vxla on Flickr

Photo credit: Northwestern University’s Ryan Field, by vxla on Flickr

Damn you, Kain Colter.

As a die-hard fan of the University of Illinois, it’s my sworn duty to hate our in-state rival, Northwestern. And most of the time, I do. But you, sir, have caused me to set that rivalry on the back burner while I ponder this: In January, the Chicago Tribune reported that a group of NU football players led by Colter, their former quarterback, filed paperwork with the National Labor Relations Board in Chicago to form a union under the auspices of an organization called the College Athletes Players Association (CAPA). The NLRB’s website confirms that an “RC petition”–that is, a petition for a representation election–was filed on January 28, 2014.

According to the Tribune, the goal of CAPA is not to get college athletes paid for playing sports. Rather:

The group has a sizable list of demands that includes financial coverage for sports-related medical expenses, placing independent concussion experts on the sidelines during games, establishing an educational trust fund to help former players graduate and “due process” before a coach could strip a player of his scholarship for a rules violation.

The organization also wants players to receive “cost of attendance” stipends — most major-conference schools agree — and allow them to be compensated for commercial sponsorships “consistent with evolving NCAA regulations.”

As Colter says, “We’re asking for a seat at the table to get our voice heard.”

And, indeed, it seems as though Colter and his CAPA allies are motivated less by a desire for remuneration than by genuine concerns over health and safety. The Daily Beast’s Evan Weiner points out that “[t]he catalyst for the unionization movement came after the NCAA said in a court filing that it does not have a ‘legal duty to protect student-athletes.’”

That case, Kristen L. Sheely, et al. v. National Collegiate Athletic Association, et al., No. 380569V (Circuit Court for Montgomery County, Maryland), arose out of the death of Derek Sheely, the starting fullback at Division III Frostburg State University, after he sustained repeated head traumas during preseason football practices in August 2011. The Complaint in the Sheely case, which you can download in .pdf format here, alleges that the NCAA developed a weak plan–and an even weaker enforcement regime–to minimize the risk of concussions and related brain injuries in intercollegiate football. Worse still, the coaching staff at Frostburg State disregarded even the NCAA’s watered-down rules, forcing Derek Sheely to run brutal drills involving head contact even after he developed clear signs of injury. And they did so knowing the NCAA would do little or nothing to punish the school for its actions.

So, it was against this backdrop that CAPA and Colter filed their NLRB petition, raising the question how college football players are to protect their own health and safety when the NCAA provides little meaningful protection, and at least some of its member institutions flout even those meager guidelines. The answer, according to CAPA and Colter, is through collective bargaining–the same way unionized workers protect their rights in the workplace.

At a hearing conducted before the Chicago office of the NLRB last month, it was clear that pro-union college athletes face an uphill battle. Their primary obstacle is the hoary notion that they are “student-athletes,” a concept that has taken on nearly mythical significance in modern sports, but which has a less than distinguished pedigree. As The Nation sports editor Dave Zirin explained last week on MSNBC’s Melissa Harris-Perry show, the NCAA concocted the term “student-athlete” in the 1950s in an effort to avoid having to pay workers compensation benefits to the wife of Ray Dennison, a Fort Lewis A&M football player who died, interestingly enough, of a head injury incurred while playing football.

But whatever validity the term “student-athlete” may have had in the past–and it’s doubtful it ever had much, at least with regard to major revenue-producing sports like football–the testimony adduced at last month’s NLRB hearings seriously challenges its continuing vitality. Even at a school like Northwestern, which is widely regarded as having managed to improve its football program while maintaining its strict academic standards, football has become big business. From CNN:

Colter testified at the hearing that he loved his experience as an athlete at Northwestern, but the picture he painted was a dim one for believers of the idea that student-athletes are students first.

He said football was dominating his college experience, consuming up to 60 hours a week during the season and up to 20 hours the rest of the year, he said. He and his teammates never got summer and winter breaks, couldn’t schedule certain classes and were required to adhere to dozens of rules or risk losing their scholarships.

“We are first and foremost an athlete,” Colter testified. “Everything we do is scheduled around football. … It’s truly a job.”

And it’s a job that generates considerable wealth for the NCAA and its member institutions–according to Forbes, Northwestern football earned $27,547,684 in total revenue during the 2011-2012 season (against expenses of $20,148,403)–separate and apart from the revenues the institutions generate through academics. So, it seems pretty reasonable, given the time commitment and the physical risks the players have to accept in order to generate that wealth, that the players be allowed to organize for the purpose of negotiating certain minimum protections for their own health and safety.

Unless, of course, the NLRB buys into, and thereby perpetuates, the legal dodge known as the “student-athlete.”

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