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I'm a business journalist and a fiction author. My novel Mute is available now from Silver Leaf Books.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Unionizing college athletes the right step for this multi-billion-dollar business

The recent ruling that Northwestern University football players can form a union has pierced the farce that this multi-billion-dollar industry is all about amateur student athletes.

While there is great value in the scholarships the student athletes receive, that’s nothing compared to the $18 billion in TV rights for football bowl games and the basketball tournament, not to mention all the merchandise, sponsorships and ticket sales. The players make people want to attend the games and buy the jerseys, yet they don’t benefit from the business side of their success, their long days practicing and putting their bodies at risk of crippling injuries and concussions. The people in suits, the coaches and the athletic directors, reap the rewards.

Don’t forget the TV networks and other media that sell advertising off the blood and sweat of these supposedly amateur competitors. 

How is it that coaches and athletic directors are allowed to receive bonuses for reaching bowl games, winning conferences or athletes winning individual national titles but the athletes aren’t? How come their contracts can include a car and phone allowance, expenses the athletes often cover out of pocket? 

These players face considerable dangers by competing. Concussions, nerve damage, joint injuries that can linger for years – these aren’t just issues for professional leagues like the NFL. The same brain injuries that debilitated former NFL greats happened to former college players, even if they don’t attract as much attention because they aren’t as famous. At least the NFL has agreed to compensate retired players for their health problems – thanks in great part to unions. 

The Northwestern players want the university to guarantee medical coverage for them once their playing days are done, and to put them on four-year scholarships so they can’t be released any year on the basis of injury. The players also proposed receiving aid for graduate degrees.

They aren’t asking for cash. I don’t think paying them should be off the table, but it shouldn’t be a huge windfall. They deserve an allowance to cover their expenses, something that would be equal at every university based on cost-of-living adjustments for the region and equal across sports as well. Plus, players should share bonuses for reaching milestones like bowl games and championships.

Perhaps if the players got some gas and jeans money they wouldn’t be so vulnerable to accepting handouts from boosters. 

The counter argument to paying players is that the small school won’t be able to compete with the big schools. That’s correct, but there’s a way around it. Handle it like a tax, with all universities paying in and a central authority, perhaps a vastly reformed NCAA, doling out the money equally, reviewing the milestone bonuses and overseeing retired player benefits. 

Let’s make sure our college athletes get taken care of long after the spotlights fade.