If you can get past whatever knee-jerk objections you have about players’ unions and read this piece on what happened at Northwestern, it’s worth your while to gain some understanding about what motivated the principals involved. Here’s the part that most telling:
When announcing the union, Colter had tried to be clear that his beef was primarily with the NCAA, not with Northwestern. But only by taking on Northwestern could he take on the NCAA, which created a more ambiguous situation. Northwestern lawyer Anna Wermuth noted that Fitzgerald had created a Leadership Council to give players some voice in team rules. Colter countered by saying that Fitzgerald retained 51% of the power. “We get an input,” Colter said, “but at the end of the day he’s the boss man.”
Wermuth also brought up Colter’s ankle to illustrate how Northwestern took care of players after graduation. “So they did say they would reimburse you for the MRI?” Wermuth asked.
“After they denied me,” Colter interjected. “But I mean there shouldn’t be any gray area. I gave—I sacrificed my body for four years. They sold my jersey in the stores, and they should protect me as far as medical coverage.”
Underlying some of the criticism of Colter was the belief by the school and many of its alumni that Northwestern was the wrong place to highlight the pitfalls of college sports. In many ways that was true. It had a graduation rate of 97%, the highest in college football’s top division, and a history of providing some medical coverage even after an athlete’s playing days had ended. As soon as the NCAA allowed schools to guarantee four-year scholarships, Northwestern was one of the few to do so immediately. In truth, the university treated its players about as well as any school did—and as well as NCAA rules allowed. This was part of Northwestern’s defense. Colter’s concerns were NCAA issues, the school’s lawyers argued. Northwestern couldn’t distribute cost-of-attendance stipends, for example, without the association’s approval.
Northwestern called other players to testify, and each presented compelling evidence that the university valued schoolwork. But none refuted Colter’s accounting of the hours or the coaches’ control. Then came Fitzgerald. “We take great pride in developing our young men to be the best they possibly can be in everything that they choose to do—athletically, academically, socially,” he said. But Kohlman got him to concede that the players can spend 24 hours on football on a Friday and Saturday when they travel to away games. He acknowledged that he set team rules too. In an interview the year before, Fitzgerald had called being a student-athlete “a full-time job.”
There weren’t any truly bad people in this fight. Northwestern was an exemplary actor within a system that wasn’t so exemplary. And Colter had good reason to express concerns over things like working conditions and players’ insurance.
The problem was that a union vote at one school was a poor vehicle to use to address the specific objections Colter had. Ironically, the move to unionize turned out to be more effective than it should have been, because the conferences and NCAA freaked out when the NLRB’s initial ruling in favor of the players was issued.
Sneer if you like, but it’s impossible to deny the changes we’ve seen from the schools and the NCAA in the wake of what happened at Northwestern and O’Bannon.
Weeks before the trial, the Pac-12 presidents published a 10-point reform plan that included full cost of attendance, lifetime education trusts and improved medical insurance for players. The Big Ten commissioner, Jim Delany, testified during the trial, and days later the conference’s presidents issued a similar open letter. South Carolina, Indiana and Southern Cal unilaterally announced that they would begin handing out four-year athletic scholarships. And the NCAA abandoned its longtime release form for the use of players’ names, images and likenesses. (Schools and conferences now issue the form.) For practically the first time in NCAA history, colleges were tripping over themselves to do better by their athletes.
That’s either a reaction or a remarkable coincidence. Either way, it’s hard to blame the players for trying.