Union issue shows need for change


At the top, let me proudly admit to being a union man for the 35 years I’ve written for this newspaper.

That said, I disagree with the notion that college athletes should be allowed to unionize, although I get what prompted Chicago’s regional director of the National Labor Relations Board to decide otherwise and in favor of quarterback Kain Colter’s application on behalf of the Northwestern University football team.

The NLRB rep looked at the school’s football revenue during the last decade and examined the day-by-day — heck, minute-to-minute — control the coaching staff has over players for practices, workouts, weight-lifting sessions, dietary and dining schedules, meetings, and study tables, etc., and ruled it was more the kind of control an employer has over its workers than the kind a school exerts over its students.

He’s misguided when you consider what many athletes already get in return — tuition, room, board, books, academic counseling and tutoring, dietary and physical conditioning guidance, paid medical attention if injured, and probably more.

The president of the NCAA, Mark Emmert, said the union-employee model is a “grossly inappropriate solution” and that it would “throw away the entire collegiate model for athletics.” As if that would be a bad thing.

When Aaron Harrison’s 3-point shot beat Michigan 10 days ago and sent Kentucky to the Final Four, it triggered a $150,000 bonus for coach John Calipari, about the same amount split among three assistant coaches, and even $25,000 for the school’s athletic director. Harrison was rewarded with a boxed lunch on the bus ride to the airport.

Imagine the bonus Kevin Ollie received for his Connecticut team winning the national title. The players got confetti and one shining moment.

Closer to home, Logan Stieber of Ohio State won an NCAA wrestling championship, the third of his career, and athletic director Gene Smith was cut a bonus check for low five figures. Stieber earned a trophy and a pat on the back.

No wonder college athletes, especially those in power conference programs, are pushing for a piece of the multimillion-dollar pie. They do the heavy lifting and others cash in. It’s hard to argue.

But unionization is not the answer; even the Northwestern players may realize that when they vote on April 25.

Complicating that issue is the NLRB’s open door would welcome athletes only from private schools. Public universities would fall under collective bargaining laws for public employees in each of 50 states. An Ohio house committee already massaged the wording in a budget bill to slam the door on full scholarship student-athletes being considered employees. The state of Ohio or Ohio State, however you read it, worked fast.

But that isn’t nearly the end of it. Even Emmert’s NCAA knows the winds of change, spurred by litigation and legislation, are blowing harder than ever. It is about to allow changes in its governance structure that will empower the five football power conferences to flex their muscles and enact a pay-for-play model that will share the wealth with football and men’s basketball players. Talk about the collegiate athletics model changing!

The mid-majors will soon be left even further behind as a system of stipends is put in place by those schools and leagues that can afford it. And college sports, under the union label or otherwise, will never be the same.

Contact Blade sports columnist Dave Hackenberg at: or 419-724-6398.