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Northwestern college football union vote: Whether it's yes or no, good things will happen

The run-up to Northwestern's vote for or against a union has been ugly and divisive. But regardless of whether the result is yes union or no union -- and it looks like no union -- college athletes will be better off because of what happened at NU.

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David Banks

Because the National Labor Relations Board ruled that Northwestern University's scholarship football players are employees of Northwestern University, they will vote today on whether to form a union. If a majority of them vote yes on a secret ballot, they can form a body which can organize for the purpose of bargaining with their employer over various issues. If they vote no, they will not form such a body.

Whether to vote yes or no is a decision each player needs to make. Many players feel they are treated perfectly fine already by the university, and would rather not deal with the attention and extraneous responsibilities forming an unprecedented labor relations body would inevitably bring. Others would like a guarantee that if they get hurt, their bills would be paid, regardless of the relative encumbrances.

On its face, the decision should be personal -- does each player feel they need protection? do they really want to deal with this new thing over the next few years of their lives? But this is unprecedented, and when something is unprecedented, people have opinions.

The truth is, those opinions are unnecessary. In the grand scheme of the movement for the welfare of college athletes, whether or not Northwestern votes yes or no is not particularly important.Good things are coming to deserving college athlete, even if its players don't decide to form a union. (It seems very likely that Northwestern's players will not decide to form a union.)

And as someone who wants good things to happen to college athletes, I'm glad Northwestern will be involved.


Legally, it isn't a big deal

What's potentially ruinous to the NCAA is whether the players are legally employees or not, and a union vote does not establish that. It establishes whether they are employees in a union or whether they are employees not in a union. Even Trevor Siemian, who has been the most vehement anti-union player, seems to understand this:

We filed for employee cards (but that) doesn't mean that a union is right for this university or this school, so I think that distinction needs to be made, too. Just because you're an employee doesn't necessarily mean that a union is the right avenue, especially in a scenario at Northwestern where everybody on the team agrees or most guys on the team agree we've been treated very, very well here here.

The NLRB's regional board has ruled the players are employees. Northwestern appealed, so the case will be revisited in several months in front of a national board, and we won't even know the results of today vote until that hearing.

Even if Northwestern wasn't here, the NCAA would be in trouble

Unionization is not the only danger for the NCAA. As Kevin Trahan pointed out over at the mothership, unionization is but one of the vultures currently circling around the NCAA. There's the O'Bannon lawsuit, lawsuits about concussions, the Big Five conferences' attempts at reforming with or without the NCAA, and more.

Kain Colter and crew made their point

Teddy Greenstein said this better than me: by standing up and even threatening to form a union, Northwestern has greased the wheels of change. The NCAA's head is turned. They've made more reasonable rules on player welfare issues -- unlimited food, etc. -- and more reasonable rules will come with time.

And here at Northwestern, there's been a very positive development: the Game Changers, the alumni group that plans to serve as an advocacy group for players with Northwestern's blessing. They hope to appeal to Pat Fitzgerald and other Northwestern administrators who can make life better for Northwestern football players on behalf of those players. They're not a "union," but that's what unions do.

They're not a "union," but they say stuff like this:

Most importantly, they say stuff like this:

Nobody seems opposed to them, because they don't carry the baggage of the word "union." They're led by a prominent media person in Telander. They love Kain Colter. And they LOVE Northwestern, and believe -- as they should -- that this school can and should be helping, not hurting.

Change happens

Allow me to get wishy-washy.

I find that in human history -- and please, find me examples where this isn't the case -- when people want to make a change to make things better for people, and the main rhetoric against that change is "well, that's the way it's always been," that change will eventually get made. It might face tons of resistance, but it will happen. Things that were societally unimaginable in 1800 were commonplace by 1900, things that were societally unimaginable in 1900 were commonplace in 1950, from 1950 to 2000, even from 2000 to now.

The way college athletes are treated is not a grave injustice. But logically, it doesn't make a whole ton of sense. And we've gone along with it because it's been this way.

The groundswell at the moment is such that it will clearly not continue to be this way. I don't know how long it will be, and I don't know what form the change will take, but the change will happen. At the very least, all the things the CAPA asked for -- full medical coverage, concussion prevention research, ability to profit off one's image as a college athlete, reform to make it easier for college athletes to graduate with a meaningful degree -- will probably be granted.

(If you oppose the idea of players unionizing or getting paid, I understand that. If you oppose those things I just said -- talented people maintaining their health, getting educated, etc. -- you don't like people, and I don't understand you. People are WONDERFUL, and I wish you would give them a chance.)

Like I said, change happens, even if there is resistance. And when we look in our rear-view, we look at those people who resisted and think: what monsters! What idiots! How and why did they think that, and how and why did they fight so hard to maintain something so wrong!

Of course, those people didn't think they were horrible people -- they thought they were just keeping things the way things always were. But they ended up on the wrong side of history, and when we look back at them, they're detestable.

On the one hand, this is what makes me incredibly proud of Northwestern. It's one thing to sit aside and allow good things to happen. It's another to take a stance and make them happen. Kain Colter probably hurt his (already not-that-great) draft stock, even though he had already graduated and could not benefit from gains for college athletes. NU's players put up with a lot of unwanted scrutiny. And they did it because they wanted good things not just for themselves, but for others.

This is also what has me incredibly disappointed with the way some around Northwestern have handled the past few weeks.

I'm talking about this:

I'm talking about this:

Coach Pat Fitzgerald, a former football star who is revered on campus, has framed a vote for the union as a personal betrayal.

"Understand that by voting to have a union, you would be transferring your trust from those you know — me, your coaches and the administrators here — to what you don’t know — a third party who may or may not have the team’s best interests in mind," Fitzgerald wrote to the team in an email.

I'm talking about this:

I don't know if Pat Fitzgerald really believes a union would hurt his players. I think it would help them, but there are certainly arguments to be made in the other direction. Everything I know about coach Fitzgerald seems to indicate that he cares very deeply about his players.

However, no union makes his life and job easier. It seems probable that he is telling them stuff that may or may not be true because of this.

I am MOST DEFINITELY talking about this:

The former defensive back said former players have contacted current players, saying if they vote "yes" for the union on April 25 they will lose out on employment opportunities and other benefits of the football alumni network.

Somewhere along the line, Fitzgerald and his program's former players left facts and advice behind, and began preying on two things that are very easy to prey on: the fear and loyalty of young men. I don't consider forming a union to negotiate work conditions to be a "betrayal," as Fitzgerald and former players framed it.

I consider lying to someone who should trust you to be betrayal, and it by skewing unionization to make his life easier, I think Fitzgerald did that. I consider threatening someone who should trust you to be betrayal, and former Northwestern players did that.

This is ugly. This is very ugly.

Change will come to college athletics, regardless of whether Northwestern forms a union. When it does, we will be glad Northwestern helped affect that change. And we'll remember the people who stood, futile and hideous, against the tide. We won't remember them well.