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Williams: NU Does it By the Book, but the Book is Flawed

Let me be the first writer to state this from the get go: I do not possess a law degree, and furthermore, I possess limited to little knowledge of labor relations. However, what I do possess is experience as a college athlete and apparently a $200K+ degree.

The first day of testimony is officially under wraps for the CAPA vs. Northwestern University case in front of the National Labor Relations Board to determine whether Northwestern football scholarship players can be determined “employees” for unionization efforts. Although personal financial gain may not be on CAPAs current agenda, they must demonstrate that the institution they represent on the gridiron is in fact their employer and they are thereby employees due to payment in the form of mainly a scholarship and stipend for services rendered as an athlete. The outcome of these proceedings may forever change the world of college athletics as we know it.

As a former college athlete myself, am very supportive to the principles behind the efforts of the Northwestern football player, even though many of these principles have been misconstrued by the masses, and many feel these players are selfish just want to be paid and aren’t grateful for what they have been given.

What I gathered from the past month of interviews and statements given is that CAPA (whose website could use some search engine optimization unless you know what “CAPA” stands for) wants changes in what I think are two main topic: medical coverage/research, and a voice at the proverbial table to lobby for things such as full cost of tuition, trusts for graduate degrees and other institutional processes.

As far as I can see, as long as major conference head coaches are paid what they are today, TV contracts continue to rise, and the new playoff and bowl picture continues to not only generate copious amounts of cash, but be structured to do so, the players have every right to demand a bigger voice, and extended medical coverage and research.

Let me first state I have no regrets about playing college football or my experience with Northwestern.

I signed my letter of intent to play the sport I loved at the institution and team that I thought would best prepare and take care of me for life, and for the most part it has. However, 18-year-old me wasn’t thinking of medical repercussions past my time spent there — it was never a topic of debate eight years ago. I had a fair share of injuries — sprained knees, loss of knee cartilage, torn labrum, tweaks/sprains galore, and, certainly, head trauma from playing middle linebacker in the Big 10 its par for the course. And I feel like I came out pretty clean compared to a lot of my teammates. I may never be able to throw my kid batting practice past 20 pitches after my labrum surgery, I can’t run for extended periods of time (though football players in general hate cardio), I still have some chronic back pain and honestly feel some cognitive decline at the prime age of 26, which is scary to think what awaits me in 25-30 years. This is by no means a pity party for me. I signed up for it, I neglected some of it during my time there along with some rehab and I'm content with it.

However, it is extremely hard for me to sit back and watch the money exchanged today and not feel that it is far beyond reasonable for future athletes to be able to access a fund or be provided supplemental insurance for medical expenses for serious injuries that occurred while playing (fraudulence aside). Anyone that disagrees with that, I personally feel is a sick human being. It wasn’t possible years ago with the economy of college athletics; it’s a different world.

While there has already been a rush of concern over concussions, there is always room for more research and more medical specialists on staff (which is on CAPA’s agenda). I'm sure if (big "if") the unionization is able to occur, there would be a lot of changes in “work environment” in regards to contact drills and overall oversight of practice conditions. We would likely see a much similar practice routine to what is practiced by most teams in the NFL. Throughout my time at Northwestern, we transitioned from a pretty rigorous routine to a pretty lenient one in terms of contact and length, which could potentially hurt CAPA's argument versus Northwestern.

During my four-and-a-half years as a “student-athlete,” I was a member of the leadership council for two seasons. That was the biggest voice we had — eleven members strong with one of the members having a 51 percent of the voting power, that being the head football coach (whose college jersey number was ironically the same). While occasionally the group of 10 players, including myself, may not have agreed with an ultimatum vote here and there, it was ultimately never questioned. Rightfully so, it was coaches' "ship." Discussions in those meetings ranged from what jerseys we would wear on game day to what disciplinary action should occur if a player had a team infraction.

This isn’t about that.

This is about players being able to present their collective concerns for health and education to the powers that be, through their own voice and not a representative who may have political implications for bringing the issues to light. It's not about what goes on within a team behind closed doors, which these NLRB proceedings are seemingly starting to open.

With the attempt for unionization, I’m on the fence. I do not know if declaring the "student-athletes" as employees is necessary to achieve CAPA's agenda — if anything think it should have been a last resort. Wanting to be viewed as employees opens up the court of public opinion to feel that you do want to be paid and do want to embark in collective bargaining. As we have already seen today, this has opened up layers that were not at the forefront of the conversation nearly a month ago.

Can they be viewed as employees? I certainly think so. I certainly see why they can’t either. It will be interesting to see what happens with the actual sports economist set to testify today. Overall, there are some points made with both parties in the hearings and interviews that I feel were negligent, weren’t elaborated upon far enough yet or didn’t come up (note: I was not in attendance nor seen a transcript).

- The actual value of a undergraduate education is severely on decline in our generation. Not sure how this affects either argument but the figures were certainly thrown around a ton.

- A lot of the hours and time put in on a weekly basis vary between position groups. Obviously a QB/WR/RB will have a lot more time of film study. Though I believe 20 hours is the cap for coach supervised time per week, and game day does not count. 20 hours is not a fair assessment.

- Kain mentioned he was forced not to take some pre-med required classes. I, for one, was steered away from pursuing the engineering program by my advisor based on my test scores, and I’m happy that happened. So it does happen, but in my case it was based on my test scores my advisor felt there would be more suitable majors to explore.

- Kain had mentioned he never knew of anyone leaving early for class. I, along with others, have in fact left practice early for a major required class that could only meet a certain day and semester. If my memory serves me correctly, we were asked to talk to the professor to be lenient with our tardiness.

- Social media was brought up a few times. There isn’t any football program/athletic department bigger than NU that has routinely been an advocate, leader and active participant in using social media to market not only the program, but the players within it. Could be a double edged sword here.

A lot has been said about it turning out that Northwestern is not the “right place” for this movement, when the same people initially thought it would be the best place. I don’t see it that way. It had to be a private college playing big time college athletics. There are only so many of those around, especially ones that can be categorized as “liberal.” While the program and athletic department do, in fact, do things “the right way,” they still do it by the book, but that book is flawed.

Be ready for a long ugly ride here folks. More and more people within the program will be forced to testify, and having an NU vs. NU situation is only going to open doors neither will ultimately want to have opened. I fear that a lot will be shown that projects a place that does act like a football factory, but only seldomly and not in egregious amounts. This will all be taken in the wrong light in the public eye.

Ultimately, there will eventually be a change in college athletics; it’s far overdue. If it was a Seinfeld episode, the librarian cop would be on the stand in support of CAPA like in the series finale testifying about Jerry Seinfeld's lost library book. Years from now, the majority of people will be dumbfounded that it took as long as it did. I don’t think I will see the day where college athletes are paid “pro-like” salaries, or I at least hope not. I think we all will see nearly all of these initial reasonable demands/requests come to fruition. They may not come via unionization, but they will come.