College Football Players Should Unionize


Amid complaints of substandard facilities, unhealthy conditions, and long bus rides, Grambling State University’s football team stepped into unprecedented waters: They boycotted their game against conference rival, Jackson State University. The hapless Tigers forfeited the game after players refused to practice or travel to Mississippi. It remains unclear how many concessions were gained by the boycott, but ESPN has reported that Grambling State is updating its facilities.

The takeaway from it all: Grambling State just demonstrated how college football players can obtain the basic protections they desperately need for their hazardous work environment.

It is not difficult to understand why football players believe they deserve more than just a scholarship for the services they provide. In the last three decades, college football has evolved into a multi-billion dollar industry. While head coaches such as University of Alabama's Nick Saban receive salaries as high as $5,650,000, the players ultimately creating the product aren’t seeing a dime go into their own pockets.

As amateurs, players are governed by the NCAA, which prohibits players from profiting from their own fame. Effectively, the NCAA is denying players from exercising their personality rights, the right to control the commercial use of one’s name, image, or likeness. One would like to believe that if players cannot make money signing autographs or making public appearances, then surely the university is making sure their student-athletes are well taken care of.

No such luck. 

College athletes have issued objections ranging from not receiving enough aid to pay the full costs of attending school to dangerous athletic complexes. While there are plenty of legitimate complaints, there are two major criticisms that stand above the rest. First, football players can say goodbye to their so-called “free ride” in the event a player is injured or cut from the team. Second, the NCAA does not require universities to cover player’s sports-related injuries. Football is a violent game, with hits that can permanently disable someone or even cause death. With concussion awareness on the rise, there are legions of former players coming forward alleging brain damage from serial concussions.

Professional football players understand the inherent risks of the game and are rewarded accordingly for exposing themselves to such dangers. Student-athletes, on the other hand, are taking the same risks without any sort of financial safety net underneath them. 

Whenever the idea of a “pay-for-play” system (i.e., money for playing) has been suggested, Division I athletic directors steadfastly refuse, arguing that players are already compensated in the form of scholarships that could be in excess of $200,000 over the course of four years. Big Ten's Jim Delaney has even gone so far as to suggest that if football players want to make money, they should just "go to the NFL and get it."

Delaney's recommendation that football players "professionalize" themselves, however, is an exercise in intellectual dishonesty. Unlike the NBA and MLB, the NFL does not have an affiliated semi-professional league. The current model for a football player to go pro requires that player to wait three years upon graduating high school to enter the NFL draft. This leaves football players with only one logical route for going professional: three years of indentured athletic servitude.

One strong contention made by opponents of the "pay-for-play" system is that the popularity of college football is a result of the NCAA carefully crafting a valuable brand over the last century. This is undoubtedly true. Universities do spend millions of dollars on their football programs to provide coaches, practice and workout facilities, travel expenses, and tuition for 85 students. But the fact of the matter is that college football remains highly lucrative from television contracts, licensing fees, merchandise, and ticket sales.

The valuable entertainment product being sold is only possible, however, because of the talent and self-sacrifice that the players provide. If universities refuse to pay players, they should at least be providing players with basic protections such as the full cost of attending school, complete medical and hospital insurance for football-related injuries, long-term disability insurance for injuries like brain trauma, and restructured transfer and eligibility rights.

Providing these protections would force the powers that be to split their share of the multi-billion dollar pie, and none of them want that. But with the NCAA’s fading strength and the advancement of technology providing players with the means to unify, realizing such a notion has become feasible.

The NCAA has taken a beating recently and is looking its most vulnerable. In the last decade, the NCAA has been pilloried for doling out inconsistent punishments. Indeed, the NCAA doesn’t "put cases against each other based on the unique nature of each case." Instead, the NCAA opts to improvise. For example, the NCAA recently stripped the University of Miami’s football program of three scholarships annually for three years, a relatively light slap on the wrist for a decade of infractions. Disapproving such an arbitrary penalty, Athletic Director Pat Haden of the University of Southern California, whose football program lost 30 scholarships over three years from violations involving former running back Reggie Bush, took to Twitter stating that stating that "We have always felt that our penalties were too harsh ... [the Miami] decision only bolsters that view."

Aside from this line of criticism, the NCAA is currently fighting an antitrust lawsuit brought by current and former players alleging unjust enrichment from the use of the players' likeness. Co-defendant EA Sports, the video game developer of the wildly popular NCAA Football, already settled with the plaintiffs and will no longer produce NCAA-related college football video games.

The NCAA, however, is holding steady. “We’re prepared to take this all the way to the Supreme Court if we have to. We are not prepared to compromise on the case," said NCAA chief legal officer Donald Remy. It is unsurprising that the NCAA means business, at stake is NCAA-style amateurism and, with it, the billions of dollars in free labor provided by student-athletes.

If football players are ever going to receive the safeguards they need to play the sport, the time is now. Whereas previous generations didn’t have the capacity to act in a collective manner, the internet and social media has paved a way for players to act in unison. With help from organizations such as the National College Players Association, football players are beginning to protest against the NCAA’s exploitation of athletes, as evidenced by the recent event in which players wrote "APU" (an acronym standing for "All Players United") on their wrist tape. Such a movement has the propensity to catch like wildfire, eventually forcing universities to concede or lose out on billions of dollars.

Nobody wants to see college football dragged through the mud. Yet failing to provide players with basic protections while generating billions of dollars is a business model the NCAA can no longer support. Football is a ferocious game and players deserve to feel comfortable in the knowledge that they will be supported if injured. Anything less is a great disservice to these young men who ultimately remain passionate about their schools and play for the love of the game. 

Indeed, give them the safeguards they need and it's a safe bet that all of them would be willing to work for free on Saturday.