An $18,000 bonus kicked in Saturday for Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith. Courtesy of wrestler Logan Stieber, who won the 133-pound NCAA championship at Chesapeake Arena.
All of a sudden, that Northwestern University football union doesn’t seem like such a bad idea.
A National Labor Relations Board official this week ruled that Northwestern football players can unionize and collectively bargain with the Big Ten school.
A college football union. Sounds like a terrible idea on the surface – a goofy mix of union organizers with coddled athletes who already have it cushy.
Until you remember who’s on the other side of the potential bargaining table. Coaches and administrators who have not protected the athletes in their charge. Coaches and administrators talk about the high ideals on which college athletics is based. They do not practice them.
If they did, the Northwestern union would be unnecessary or would have different stated goals.
The front man for the union, former Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter, says a potential union would not push to pay athletes. Rather, the union wants to protect athletes and free them from unfair constraints. Of which there are many.
Don’t misunderstand. Collegiate athletes aren’t mistreated. Many are given a wonderful opportunity; play the sport they love, in exchange for a free education, great contacts for their post-college life and memories to last forever. Not a bad deal at all.
If the adults in charge could just make some halfway decent decisions, all would be rosy. Instead, policies and rules and finances all are tilted toward enhancing the lives of the people in charge.
Health care, for instance. Athletes injured while playing or practicing for their school – on the job? – are covered by university policies only as supplemental coverage. Family insurance kicks in first. That’s absurd; a cost-saving maneuver so schools can pay their athletic director extra money when some kid sweats his way to an NCAA wrestling title.
Or freedoms to switch schools. NCAA transfer policies are Draconian. Players on the Division I level are subjected to sitting out a season. I can understand that. I don’t agree with it, but I understand the reasoning. Trying to keep order. Trying to prevent mass exodus.
But schools are allowed to restrict transferring athletes from receiving scholarship aid elsewhere, even though scholarships are not four-year deals, but one-year agreements, with the schools holding the power to extend or eliminate. Some coaches don’t succumb to such restrictive tactics, but some do. We saw it with OSU quarterback Wes Lunt, who was limited by Mike Gundy to which schools Lunt could transfer and receive a scholarship. We saw it with quarterback Baker Mayfield, who wasn’t even on scholarship at Texas Tech but was restricted by Tech on where he could accept a scholarship.
Commercial endorsements would be another prime union topic. Jay Bilas exposed NCAA hypocrisy last year when he found that on a NCAA shopping website, typing in the name of an athlete would offer up their jersey for sale. Video-game makers for years have paid schools rights fees, using images of players not named but clearly based on the real person. The OU quarterback, for example, a year ago was a tall, strong-armed, accurate passer who was not fleet afoot. Wore No. 12. Hometown of White Sands, N.M. Dead ringer for Landry Jones, just minus his name.
The notion that college athletes are employees could turn the entire NCAA landscape on its head. Taxation, of both athletes and athletic departments. Eligibility issues. Title IX issues. Public school/private school issues. Division I/lower division issues. Calling athletes employees ushers in chaos.
But universities have only themselves to blame. Schools have cultivated the culture of college athletics to reach the current summer system of voluntary (but actually mandatory) workouts with staff members who aren’t designated as coaches but have rampant power to make or break an athletic career. I don’t think college athletes are employees of the university. But I can understand the rationale of anyone who declares such.
If a union does materialize – and we’re a long way from it, since the NCAA will fight to the death to prevent it – and salaries become an issue, then the current system won’t survive. Maybe the NCAA wouldn’t, either. That’s when you could see major schools, like in the Big 12 and SEC, pull out and start over.
But if the union does what its organizers say it wants to do, improve the rights of athletes, maybe push for the cost-of-attendance stipend that has been close to implementation anyway, ensure that athletes aren’t exploited, the current system could survive. Maybe even thrive.
All it would cost is taking from coaches and administrators a little power, maybe a few bonuses and the idea that offering a free education gives you the right to treat people wrong.
Berry Tramel: Berry can be reached at (405) 760-8080 or at . He can be heard Monday through Friday from 4:40-5:20 p.m. on The Sports Animal radio network, including FM-98.1. You can also view his personality page at newsok.com/berrytramel.