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Colter’s push against NCAA a ‘Hail Mary’ for unions

Published 9:20am Wednesday, January 29, 2014

The perpetual clash between the NCAA and its student-athletes over compensation entered its newest chapter earlier this week when the Northwestern University football team submitted a request with federal authorities to unionize.

The unprecedented move is the most formidable attempt yet by student-athletes to seek greater bargaining power with universities, whom the students claim are exploiting their labors for minimal, and sometimes zero, compensation.

Kain Colter, the senior quarterback, took the lead in mobilizing his teammates and seeking assistance from like-minded activist groups. At a Tuesday press conference in Chicago, he railed against the current college sports system, calling it a “dictatorship” in which student athletes were just cogs in the $5 billion scheme.

Insisting that the decision was not about money – rather it’s about giving athletes a seat at the table, Colter articulated concerns about the costs of player injuries and the non-guaranteed nature of scholarships, ostensibly their only form of compensation.

While Colter and his comrades’ gripes are certainly valid – the NCAA operates an exploitative system that profits immensely from the labors of uncompensated athletes (though many would argue that scholarships are indeed compensation), it’s hard to see what the end goal of this is if it’s not to get paid. Being granted a seat at the table is great, but it’s what they would use that seat to ask for that really counts.

The other fishy part of this episode is that the United Steelworkers union is bankrolling the College Athletes Players Association, the union Colter and his Northwestern colleagues are trying to create. Considering that this case could work its way to the U.S. Supreme Court if the National Labor Relations Board takes issue with the proposal, the UW will be on the hook for millions of dollars in legal bills.

But why is the UW pushing this so aggressively? Let’s step back a moment and look at the state of the organized labor movement in the country. Private and public sector union ranks have plummeted since their peak in the 1970s, due in part to President Reagan’s union-busting policies of the following decade. Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, the unions’ best offense was defense, fighting bitterly to keep their hands on concessions won in earlier years.

Over the past year, unions have gone on the offensive once again to expand their membership, and accordingly, their political clout. Strikes were staged across the country last year by fast-food workers pushing for higher wages. In Washington, DC, unions pushed a bill through the city council seeking to force Wal-mart to pay a minimum wage 50 percent higher than other employers in the city.

You can add attempting to organize college athletes as the latest Hail Mary attempt for unions to regain legitimacy. Unions have surely long had their eyes on student-athletes, given the constant criticism of the NCAA’s labor exploiting practices and public sympathy over the matter.

They just needed to find a go-getter college athlete that was willing to lead the charge for them; they have found their man in Kain Colter.

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