BLAIR KERKHOFF

Can college athletes of the world unite into a labor union?

Updated: 2014-01-29T06:45:41Z

By BLAIR KERKHOFF

The Kansas City Star

Will they be the Missouri Tigers and College Athletes Local 573?

Will we look for the union label on Kansas Jayhawks jerseys or for picket lines by Kansas State Wildcats at Bill Snyder Family Stadium?

On Tuesday, an undisclosed number of Northwestern University football players moved to form a union, the College Athletes Players Association. They signed union cards and everything. They even have the support of the United Steelworkers.

Northwestern has been moving toward this action for months. The Wildcats led a small group of players nationwide who wore “APU” — All Players United — on wristbands and gear during college football games last season.

Tuesday proved the in-season protest was no hollow gesture, and no matter what else comes of this development, it shows that the National College Players Association, an advocacy group spearheaded by former UCLA linebacker Ramogi Huma, isn’t to be easily dismissed.

The reality is labor and management mostly want the same thing: better conditions for college athletes. Power conference schools are working toward getting more scholarship money to players, although they can’t seem to agree on a structure.

And schools are building like crazy to lure athletes — witness Kansas’ proposed $17.5 million apartment building for basketball players.

But the schools can have a funny way of showing their concern. At the NCAA Convention in San Diego two weeks ago, Wake Forest president Nathan Hatch said “that’s not something we’ve wrestled with” when asked where athletes fit into a new college sports structure.

Oops.

Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter said the union is about getting a seat at the table to voice concerns. “A lot of people will think this is all about money; it’s not,” Cain told the Chicago Tribune.

It is, at least some. The National College Players Association website lists 11 goals, and the first is reducing brain-trauma risks. The second is increasing the scholarship amount.

But there is a broader message here. As the college sports model changes, influenced more and more by television revenue that enriches coaches and administrators, athletes should be a bigger part of the evolution.

Increase their scholarship, yes. But just as critically, involve athletes in the decisions that shape college sports.

Their opinion should have mattered as college football decided to expand its season with a playoff. Players should have a say in rules regarding commercial opportunities and employment. I’d go as far as saying athletes should have input on scheduling. Returning from road games — for our viewing entertainment — in the wee hours and getting up for an 8 a.m. class is not in their best interest.

Among its missions, labor unions protect working conditions. But this question is whether amateur athletes can form a union.

The NCAA says no.

“This union-backed attempt to turn student-athletes into employees undermines the purpose of college: an education,” NCAA chief legal officer Donald Remy said in a statement. “Student-athletes are not employees, and their participation in college sports is voluntary. … Many student-athletes are provided scholarships and many other benefits for their participation.”

Northwestern’s vice president for athletics and recreation, Jim Phillips, agrees, and the guess here is so will most college sports administrators.

But Huma’s group isn’t going away, and neither are changes to college sports. A union might not be the answer, but neither is ignoring the rank and file.

To reach Blair Kerkhoff, call 816-234-4730 or send email to bkerkhoff@kcstar.com. Follow him at twitter.com/BlairKerkhoff.

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