As you may have heard, there's a legal hearing taking place right now centered around whether the Northwestern University football players should be able to legally form an employee union. At the heart of the case is defining whether football players are, in fact, employees of the University — they are compensated in the form of tuition, room and board in exchange for their services on the field — or just students who are also football players.
This case has the potential to change college football as we know it. If players are allowed to unionize, they will have the power to make compensation demands, which will affect everything from player safety, recruiting, transfers, and product endorsements.
The whole thing stinks. Here's why:
Over the past 100-plus years, the popularity of college football has skyrocketed. Fan interest and television viewership has risen year after year after year. As great as the NFL is, there's just something special about seeing the college boys, draped in the colors of their beloved schools, battling it out on the gridiron.
There's a beauty to it that doesn't exist anywhere else in sports.
As the game has grown in popularity, so has the potential for exploitation and greed. The magnanimous nature of the NCAA and its member schools has been nothing short of extraordinary. It's hard to imagine, but the game as it exists today could look very different if it weren't for the dedication of the college game's stewards to keep it purely about football, school pride, and education.
Imagine for a moment how different the game would look if the elements of exploitation and greed were to find their way in. Imagine the offensiveness of turning on your TV one Saturday afternoon only to see that perhaps the signature collegiate uniform, the navy and gold jersey of Notre Dame, had been adorned with the tacky logo of an apparel company. Picture a college football landscape where, on a week to week basis, you had no idea what uniform your favorite team would be wearing - or if you'd even recognize them. Imagine how you'd feel if your team's uniform had been auctioned off to the highest bidder, an apparel company that would premier a new look each week in an effort to sell its own wares.
And what if exploitation and greed found their way into the coaches offices? We're used to a world where college football serves as a stage for coaches who coach for the love of the game, and as a proving ground for coaches who strive to coach at a professional level. But imagine a world where the sportsmanship compact between universities, coaches and players ceased to exist. Where coaches were rogue free agents, bouncing from school to school in pursuit of the highest paying contract. Imagine the absurdity of a coach making five million dollars per year surrounded by a team of players making nothing.
And greed wouldn't stop there. Imagine a world of college football where the corporate advertising wolves were free to roam. Where every last goalpost, scoreboard, beer cup, t-shirt, stadium, and shoelace had a corporate logo plastered all over it. Where the experience of being at a college game had been degraded so as to be indistinguishable from being at any other game from arena league to the NFL.
Imagine how the sports networks would act in this landscape. Imagine a behemoth network just heaving sacks of money at the colleges so they can cash in on the action. Imagine the corrupting power the large sports networks could have, to the point of dictating the match-ups and even realignment of entire leagues, all in the name of creating the highest-dollar advertising slots.
And finally, imagine a world where university presidents and the NCAA not just allowed this all to happen, but encouraged it, AND THEN turned around and told the student athletes that they are the only ones who are not entitled to a piece of the pie. Imagine the audacity of telling a college football player - the very person who goes out and risks his health for the benefit of all these exploitative, greedy entities - that he is the only one expected to remain loyal to the idea of the amateur athlete playing for the love of the game.
It's an absurd vision, of course.
It serves as a reminder of the type of situation in which it would be perfectly reasonable for college football players to unionize to protect their own interests. But since we currently reside in a world in which the sanctity of college football has been protected - a world in which every effort has been made to ensure that college football is not a product to be sold to the highest bidder - there is no need for college football players to protect themselves. Whatever small amount of money is made from college football is put back into the universities to increase the quality of the education those very players are receiving — for free, no less!
The game of college football has remained free of greed for over a century. I can only hope that these greedy football players are unsuccessful in their bid to unionize and that we can return next fall to the pure game that I know and love.