We’re still waiting for the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to render a decision of the appeal of the ruling by an NLRB regional office last year that Northwestern football players are, indeed, employees under American labor law (whether the players vote to form a union is irrelevant to this question).
This past week, tweets by University of Illinois offensive lineman Simon Cvijanovic put in the spotlight some of what is potentially at stake in the NLRB’s deliberations. Cvijanovic, who just graduated, was a multi-year starter who left the team last fall after he sustained a serious knee injury. In his tweets, Cvijanovic blasted Coach Tim Beckman for pushing Cvijanovic and others to play when he was too hurt to do so. Cvijanovic also accused Beckman of coercing players to do things contrary to their well-being by threatening to revoke scholarships. In sum, Cvijanovic said, Beckman abused his power because, well, he could. Additional players have come forward to make similar allegations (others have defended the coach).
Cvijanovic made quite clear that players still under scholarship were too vulnerable to speak out. And this is precisely the set of circumstances you can expect in workplaces that escape larger legal oversight. The pressure to perform, the misaligned incentives between players health and coaches desire to win (compounded by declining incentives to the coaching staff to protecting the well-being of players nearing the end of their eligibility) constitute an ever-present danger to athletes’ long-term health. No question, a macho culture (as Cijanovic described it in his tweets) also pushes players to play through pain, even when coaches don’t expressly push them. But the already dangerous ecology of the football world is worsened by the one-sided relationship between players and coaches in college. This is why representation and the relevant application of labor law matter in this context.
And it’s why Cowherd’s bleatings last year against the unionization drive at Northwestern were so off-base. The push to achieve at least partial protection under labor law is not, as Cowherd so stupidly said, about getting more ‘swag.’ It’s about having a basic set of rights beyond what a coach unilaterally decides.
This is true regardless of whether Beckman can explain away, at least in part, some of the allegations made against him.
(Here’s the piece I wrote last year about Cowherd’s misinformed rant – surprise! – about the unionization drive):
This morning, ESPN’s Colin Cowherd spewed bile about the news yesterday that football players at Northwestern want to try to form a union.
In the part of the segment I caught, Cowherd made three main points:
1) The NLRB represents pipe fitters, masons and other blue-collar workers. It’s a joke, according to Colin, that 19-year-old point guards are going to be put in the same category as those manual laborers whom, Cowherd repeatedly asserted, are the people the NLRB represents. In one potted example, Cowherd said that those workers might be laying brick in -34 degree weather, to take out a third mortgage to send their kid, who might have a learning disability, to a better school. How could anyone compare their circumstances to those of a bunch of (frankly spoiled) college athletes?
2) That what players are after is little more than some extra swag — trivial stuff, really.
3) That the players have been given an incredible gift — access to a great education and one, by the way, that they don’t really deserve. Cowherd said he’d spoken to two coaches who told him that maybe 1 or 2 percent of their players would qualify for their university were it not for their athletic ability. Maybe, Cowherd conceded, they came from less privileged circumstances than he did. But that was all the more reason to embrace the incredible educational opportunity they were privileged to receive rather than whining about their good fortune.
In sum, Cowherd found it laughable that anyone could imagine student-athletes deserved to be represented in the way this champion of the working class says ought only be available to real workers.
This was from a segment on today’s show that is not yet available as a podcast at ESPNradio’s website. But I promise this is a fair representation of what he said and, because it doesn’t also capture the way Cowherd scoffed his way through the entire monologue, understates his contempt for the very idea.
Let us review these claims in turn:
1) The NLRB is not a union. It adjudicates disputes between workers and employers and recognizes groups seeking collective representation rights. More substantively, in this case, the United Steelworkers union has supported the Northwestern players’ petition, though the players would not become members of that union. Clearly, then, this one particularly large representative of the kinds of workers Cowherd claims to be standing up for believes the Northwestern players’ position is legitimate. Cowherd is also wrong about whom he imagines the union represents. Here’s what the United Steelworkers themselves say:
We’re steelworkers. We slurry and smelt aluminum. We mine for iron ore and create cement. We make glass and metals of many kinds. We produce paper and paper products. And we craft energy-saving wind turbines that help save our Earth.
We’re nurses and nurses’ aides. We make Harley Davidson motorcycles and Carrier air conditioners. We’re rubber workers who make your tires; metal workers who make the materials that go into buildings, homes, automobiles, planes and roads.
We serve you at banks and teach at universities. You’ll find us in oil refineries and grocery stores. At utility companies and in chemical plants. We work in the public sector and in forestry. We drive taxi cabs and work in airports. We’re security guards and electricians. We’re miners and pharmaceutical workers.
So, on the question of whether it’s appropriate for college athletes to seek union representation, you might still disagree. But whether they’re blue-collar enough for Cowherd’s professed tastes is wholly irrelevant. And there’s really no excuse for Cowherd’s ignorance about the reality of the labor organization actually supporting the players’ petition for representation, since a five-second Google search would have cleared that up.
2) About what the players’ goals are, I suppose it was too much to ask that Cowherd would, at the least, nod to what the players themselves have said they want. The players’ position in a nutshell, is that they’ve been brought to campus primarily to play their sport and that, therefore, what they do should be properly understood as an employment. As such, under American labor law, employees have a legal right to representation to bargain collectively over some of the circumstances of that employment.
The NCAA strongly disagrees, of course. In a statement yesterday, it said, in part:
“This union-backed attempt to turn student-athletes into employees undermines the purpose of college: an education…Student-athletes are not employees, and their participation in college sports is voluntary. We stand for all student-athletes, not just those the unions want to professionalize.”
This has long been the NCAA’s position — that “student-athletes” are students first. That claim is the basis for their argument that players are not entitled to anything but “approved compensation” — that is, an athletic scholarship, according to terms determined by the NCAA itself. While players’ representatives yesterday said that monetary compensation could certainly be on the table at some point, there are more pressing matters, including how far the universities’ responsibility extends to players who suffer concussions and other football-related injuries.
Cowherd, it would seem, despite having spent his entire professional life covering sports, including every day now for a decade at the premier sports media organization in the world, is apparently unaware that there have been reports of some significant health risks associated with playing football. How else to explain his presumption that they’re forming a union ’cause they just want more stuff?
In addition to the occasional paralyzed player and other catastrophic injuries, it does appear that football can result in adverse long-term health risks, the care and coverage of which would appear to be fit subjects for collective bargaining. In fact, in discussing their immediate concerns yesterday, representatives for the would-be union emphasized their desire for scholarships to be fully guaranteed even if a player’s career is ended due to injury as well as other medical protections.
OK, so maybe I am being a little unfair to Cowherd here. But certainly no more than Cowherd himself, who clearly thought he was being cute to mock the players for wanting more swag. Quite obviously, that’s not the primary intent of this effort.
3) But it’s worse than that for Cowherd. In the next breath, he said that the players were not really fit to be students at Northwestern or, presumably, any other well-regarded academic institution. As noted above, Cowherd claims to have spoken to two coaches who, when asked what percentage of players would qualify academically for their schools said “maybe one or two percent.” There has, of course, been a raging debate recently about academically under-prepared athletes on college campuses. But no one — no coach, NCAA official or anyone else involved in college athletics — would ever say that such a small proportion of players meets minimally acceptable academic standards.
And to be clear, if Cowherd’s 1 to 2 percent claim were true, it would completely undermine the NCAA’s position on this issue — that the athletes are students first. Which means that you’ve made the case for the players as employees a slam dunk. If almost no players meet the schools’ academic standards, then the enterprise itself cannot possibly be construed to be primarily an educational one. Instead, if virtually none of the participants being admitted to the university deserves to be on the academic merits, then it is indisputably clear that the central purpose of such admissions procedures is to field a football team, unless you believe the multibillion-dollar college sports enterprise is nothing more than a charity. If the NLRB, or any judge, or any other adjudicating body were to accept Cowherd’s claim at face value, this case would be over tomorrow. It is central to the NCAA’s legal position that the players are not employees because the collegiate sport mfission is, first and foremost, an academic one. This is how they sustain their position that the players are students who — only secondarily — engage voluntarily in a sporting activity. In sum, you cannot argue that you are accepting a group of individuals, 98 to 99 percent of whom do not meet your academic admissions standards and then say you’re doing so, first and foremost, so you can give them an education at your academically rigorous school.
Cowherd’s rant, in sum, was an incoherent mess.
ESPN should be ashamed for airing this dreck.