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College football: Alex Ferguson looks at Northwestern unionisation story

Alex Ferguson Posted 27th March 2014 view comments

A Federal Agency turned the future of American college sports upside down on Wednesday when it said that college football players at Northwestern could unionise.'s resident US sports expert Alex Ferguson looks at what it could mean for the future of the game and for sports in general...

"If you're good at something, never do it for free." - The Joker (Heath Ledger) in The Dark Knight

Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter wants greater financial stipend

Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter wants greater financial stipend

It's been quite a mad seven days for college sports.

This time last week, people were drooling over the start of 'March Madness' (or to give it its true name: The NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament), which essentially is an excuse to bunk off work and watch a lot of basketball.

And mad it was, with top seeds falling by the wayside in quick succession. For the 'Sweet 16' (or third round) of games, there will be no Duke, Syracuse or unbeaten-up-to-playing-Kentucky Wichita State. Enjoy watching the rest of the tournament from home, too, chaps.

College athletes - and in particular those in college football - have been moaning for years that they are being exploited by the NCAA, which is college sports' governing body.

Alex Ferguson
Quotes of the week

But what happened on Wednesday made a crazy week even crazier: College football players at Northwestern were told that they could unionise. In essence, they were now able to be paid, be professional, and, you know, strike.

The background to this isn't new: College athletes - and in particular those in college football - have been moaning for years that they are being exploited by the NCAA, which is college sports' governing body.

They get small financial compensation as players, yet the schools can make billions from TV deals and other commercial enterprises off their sweat and effort. The schools argue that players get a free education and that, really, they are there for the education, with sports a mere 'hobby' (which, as it goes, is untrue).

Bur right now, Kain Colter, the quarterback at Northwestern - one of the best private schools in the country - made this argument: "Sure we're given a free education, but we still generate billions of dollars in revenue for schools and don't get much of a financial stipend in return. And when we leave after giving three/four years of our heart and soul to college programs, we're not medically covered for our injuries."

His Northwestern Football players followed him into the process, and they applied to the National Labor Relations Board to see if they could be unionised.

And on Wednesday, the NLRB voted in Colter's favour.


"Hubba, hubba, hubba! Money, money, money! Who do you trust? Me? I'm giving away free money." - The Joker (Jack Nicholson), Batman (1989)

The regional director of the NLRB, Peter Sung Ohr, wrote that Northwestern generated $235m during 2003-12 through "ticket sales, television contracts, merchandise sales and licensing agreements", and was able to use the money how they wished.

And $235m is probably laughable to big-time schools like Miami, Florida, Ohio State, Alabama, Texas and LSU who flourished during that period.

According to the Associated Press, NCAA president Mark Emmert has talked about raising the players to a mighty $2,000, but has been laughed off the park. Critics have said that players are used and abused by programs, and when they are not needed, they are discarded at will.

And the NCAA's line about "student-athletes". Sorry Mark, they are athlete-students. We know this because if a starting quarterback tells his coach: "Sir, I'm not coming to practice today because I need to get schoolwork done. Sorry, I know I'm your starting quarterback, but it's a priority of mine", it probably wouldn't go down too well!

Personally, I think that the fact that players want more money rather than a small stipend is a joke. The money from a free education is substantial, and leads to students being in thousands of dollars of debt.

But this fight isn't over. The NCAA is going to try and protect its lucrative business of hardly playing its athletes and getting billions of dollars in return from their commercial 'partners' and fight this to the very hilt. We think they'll lose.

And when the NCAA loses, it'll start a tidal wave with private schools like Notre Dame, Southern California, Miami, Syracuse, Vanderbilt, Baylor and Duke, and then go to the big public schools like more to the 'big-time' public schools like Alabama, LSU, Michigan, Kentucky and Penn State.


"I believe that there will be ultimately be a clash between the oppressed and those who do the oppressing." - Malcolm X

If I'm the NCAA, I try and come to a deal with the players as soon as possible.

And here's the deal:

1) Double players' wages to $6,000-$10,000 a stipend. That's pretty generous if you include the free education and free lodging that players are getting at the schools.

2) A player can make additional income from apparel sales with his or her name on (a percentage of total sales income).

3) Institute a rule that says a player is allowed to apply to go to the NCAA Draft, but he is amateur until NFL Draft Day. In other words, he can explore the idea of going pro, but not lose his eligibility if a Combine injury/he changes his mind to stay on.

4) Allow players to have agents for marketing purposes only, but the agent is to have no contact with football coaches or their staff. It's a strictly player-agent thing.

5) Install an NCAA-wide medical fund funded by a percentage of TV revenue schools are making, on top of mandating every school has a medical fund for players, and any football-related injuries after they have left the programs are still paid by the universities.

We can only hope that this will be this simple. But with the NCAA and money involved, we think this battle is going to rage on for a while.

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