Don’t look for the union label here

Want to start a disagreement fast? Broach the subject of labor unions with someone.
Only the most naive individual would suggest that unions weren’t a much-needed entity once upon a time. Their formation allowed American workers to rise above the sweat-shop conditions favored by most employers more than a century ago and begin enjoying workplace rights most of us now take for granted.
It’s pretty safe to say we’ve all benefited from that early unionization movement, whether we’ve ever actually joined a particular local or not. That said, however, opposition to unions has grown strong in large segments of the private sector over the years, the main complaint being the organizations’ typical reluctance to practice the dual arts of negotiation and compromise when attempting to forge labor agreements on their members’ behalf.

Some critics will insist, in fact, that unions’ unwillingness to bend has contributed greatly to the exporting of jobs to other countries. A number of corporations have chosen that as a preferable alternative to being strong-armed into a labor deal with which they’re not comfortable.
In short, unions are thought by naysayers to have become as monolithic as those enterprises against which they’ve supposedly been protecting us.
A sharp divide exists between those within and outside of unions these days, with each side claiming the other is foolish and out of touch with reality. So it’s logical to assume two distinct trains of thought are running through public minds in regard to news of a proposed union for collegiate athletes.
According to published reports, Northwestern University quarterback Kain Colter and a group of Wildcats players are beginning the process of forming a union. ESPN’s “Outside the Lines” reported that Ramogi Huma, a former UCLA linebacker and president of the National College Players Association, has filed a petition for them with the National Labor Relations Board.
The United Steelworkers has offered to support the endeavor, which Huma -- who created the NCPA in 2001 as an advocacy group -- told ESPN is “about finally giving college athletes a seat at the table. Athletes deserve an equal voice when it comes to their physical, academic and financial protections.”
In an interview with the Chicago Tribune, Colter reiterated Huma’s claims and quickly dismissed the idea that the NCPA is in any way promoting some sort of specific financial agenda, or that its real aim is merely to try to secure a play-for-pay agreement for college athletes.
On the group’s website is listed 11 specific goals, some of which are difficult to refute.
For instance, who wouldn’t be solidly behind a proposal that wants to “establish and enforce uniform safety guidelines in all sports to help prevent serious injuries and avoidable deaths?” That’s No. 7 on the list of goals, and aligned with it are ones seeking to minimize brain trauma risks (No. 1) and preventing players from being stuck paying for sports-related medical expenses (No. 3).
And those objectives probably pick up mainstream support when juxtaposed against a public statement given by the NCAA’s chief legal officer, who said there is “no relationship between the NCAA, its affiliated institutions or student-athletes ... Student-athletes are not employees within any definition of the National Labor Relations Act or the Fair Labor Standards Act.”
Let’s see -- student-athletes, particularly those who participate in football and men’s basketball at the NCAA Division I level, help for-profit universities bring in gobs of revenue through their physical talents. Sounds kind of like work to me.
Granted, schools are not forcing any young person to become, or remain, a student-athlete. But when athletic scholarships are what’s paying for tuition, there appears to be a sort of indentured-servant quality to the whole thing, because dropping out of the sport would ultimately mean dropping out of school for reasons of financial hardship.
So without intending to, the NCAA may have shifted more than a little sentiment toward the NCPA with its hard-line stance.
The athletes have a valid gripe, too, when they say restrictions on obtaining legitimate in-season employment need to be relaxed. Other scholarship students don’t face such money-earning limitations, so why should jocks?
And letting athletes take advantage of commercial opportunities afforded them because of their sports-related status should be OK as well. Heck, the universities have no compunction about enriching their coffers off the sweat of quarterbacks and point guards, so why can’t those same guys make life better for themselves?
However, before the NCPA gets too comfortable and figures the majority of people will give a thumbs-up to the whole unionization idea, let us consider a couple more of its goals.
I’m not sure if they were listed in order of importance; if so, then placing “increase graduations rates” in the No. 4 position is a bit disturbing. Shouldn’t that goal be stationed above all the rest, especially when the NCPA lists its second goal as “raise the scholarship amount?”
What’s the matter -- a full ride isn’t enough? That’s what a lot of high-profile recruits receive as an incentive to attend a particular university, along with whatever non-reported “income” that magically finds its way to them via generous and ethically challenged supporters of that school’s athletic department.
What about those students who can’t catch a football or shoot a basketball, and whose sky-high GPA still isn’t enough to keep them from having to pay for some of their advanced education? Somebody would have to make up the difference for “raised scholarship amounts,” so why not saddle those without an NFL or NBA contract in their immediate future with the additional costs?
Certainly, the NCPA raises some cogent points, but proposing unionization is not going to garner widespread support for it. And it’s never made crystal clear how the concept will filter down to those parties involved with the so-called “minor” sports, or smaller schools that don’t make a bundle off their football and basketball programs. How much real benefit will they all derive from any actions taken?
Without question, the subject is one that draws a very obvious demarcation line. Ironically, Northwestern officials may have offered the most sensible look at it.
In a statement, the school agreed with the NCAA that its student-athletes are not employees and, thus, should not be governed by the rules of collective bargaining. However, Northwestern officials also sided with the players by admitting health and academic issues “are important ones that deserve further consideration.”
Is it a case of straddling the fence? No, I see it as Northwestern’s people being savvy enough to embrace the true spirit of compromise.
What a unique concept.