College Football Allowed to Unionize

The National Labor Relations Board ruled that Northwestern University football players are employees and can unionize. Sports attorney and IIT Chicago-Kent adjunct professor Eldon L. Ham joins us to talk about the NLRB ruling. Read NLRB's decision here.

Read an interview with Chicago Sun-Times Sports Columnist and former Northwestern University football player Rick Telander about the ruling.

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What are your thoughts on NLRB's decision?

It’s huge. I find it very exciting and I think justice is being served. We were dealing with volumes of hypocrisy in the NCAA. These people were calling a pig a duck when that’s just not the case here. Work is work. This ruling was a very narrow decision. The first thing they had to do, and they did, was define what work is. When you’re working 50 hours a week, it’s not an extracurricular activity. This is a big-time, money-making sport. It’s criminal not to pay them.

Some people argue players should only be paid at the professional level.

Well, they’re not amateurs. And some schools think scholarships are a form of payment so you’ve agreed you’re already paying them. The point is, when someone works, you pay them. Amateurism is intramural basketball in 6th grade. This is not it.

You’ve said before that it’s ironic this happened to Northwestern’s football program considering the program generally treats its players well. Why do you think the players were successful in this ruling?

People say, “Isn’t this unfair that this comes from a place where there’s a wonderful athletic director and great scholarships?” But, in a way, it’s fitting. People there are smart. They know you can’t dissociate the real world from what you’re learning in school. What you learn about ethics shouldn’t be disregarded because you’re playing football for the school. These students realized that, and the fact that it’s Northwestern makes me proud. Also, I think Kain Colter is a very brave and thoughtful young man for pursuing this.

What should a student football union advocate for?

The first thing is the players get a voice. They are not student athletes. They are football players. They’re old enough to vote and go to war, so they should be old enough to decide their future as professionals. Injury recovery is another major implication in negotiating rights. They should be taken care of for life. If they face a major injury while in school and down the line they need follow-up surgery, they should be covered. Also they should have a say-so in the amount of games they play. And then there needs to be a discussion on how they get recompense for their work. These major networks like ESPN get a lot of money off of their work, but they see none of that.

Could this affect other college level sports dependent on the revenue brought in from major programs like football and basketball?

Some people will argue it will affect the sports like volleyball, tennis and others but I don’t think that’s true. There’s more than enough money to pay these coaches millions of dollars but none to divvy to the team making them the money? Sorry, NCAA, but it had to happen. It’s just ridiculous we have a massive rule book about infractions that tries to maintain a façade of amateurism for these athletes who work for the university, fill stadiums and earn these coaches those millions.

Interview has been condensed and edited.

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