For once, Northwestern relevant in March

April, 1, 2014
Apr 1
12:47
PM CT
Greenberg By Jon Greenberg
ESPNChicago.com
Archive
Sandwiched in between never-ending commercials and intermittent basketball, Kain Colter and his plucky band of union upstarts did something unbelievable: They beat the big, bad NCAA. Or at least Northwestern.

Talk about One Shining Moment.

[+] EnlargeKain Colter, Tim Waters, Leo Gerard
AP Photo/Paul BeatyKain Colter's attempt to unionize the Northwestern football team could be a significant development in how colleges treat scholarship athletes.
When the Northwestern labor decision came down, I watched the confusion, and in some cases mild umbrage, pour in from adults who make a living reporting on college athletes and many of whom seemed unable to understand the central point of a union. Slopes were slippery, my friends.

After all, who would be against the fair treatment of college athletes, the unpaid cogs in a billion dollar machine?

Plenty!

The way some talked or wrote, you'd think Colter and the IRS were padlocking the doors of Ryan Field.

I'm no futurist, so I can't begin to map out how this situation will work out. But the central part of the argument that was ruled favorably by the Chicago office of the National Labor Relations Board is simple and requires only half a brain and some common sense: College football players are employees. Does anyone else take barter for work?

Is there anyone naive enough to believe that college football coaches are recruiting athletes as students first? "Man, Billy can throw that ball to Nacogdoches, but how's his grasp of Flaubert?"

Athletes are marketing tools for the university and contractual bonuses for coaches. The trade-off -- an education, room and board, etc. -- are decided wholly by the colleges and the NCAA. College athletes aren't permitted a voice in this regard. It's take it or leave it.

Forget salaries or stipends for a moment. The key to this whole debate is ensuring college athletes a voice in college athletics. Why is this wrong?

And for that matter, what's so wrong about having a job in the first place? I went to college to be a journalist and when I worked at the independent school newspaper, I got paid for it. Not much, but it was something. I also did work-study for a campus radio station. Again, paid. Amazingly enough, I was still considered a college student.

The unionization of college athletics is a complicated issue with many possible outcomes for athletes (I don't buy that the IRS would tax tuition, there are alternatives) and colleges, but why run from it?

I'm certainly not one of those "burn it to the ground" types, and a college education can be extremely valuable. But I must admit I love watching millionaire coaches, and their enablers, squirm at the possibility that they won't have complete control over a young athlete's life anymore.

As a reporter, I have a feeling it'll turn out just fine. If you don't believe me, check out the late Marvin Miller's book on bringing a union to Major League Baseball, "A Whole Different Ballgame: The Sport and Business of Baseball." You'll recognize many of the weak arguments he faced nearly 50 years ago being repeated today.

Jon Greenberg

Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com. He has lived and worked in Chicago since 2003, and is a graduate of Ohio University and the University of Chicago.

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