Derrick Z. Jackson: College players file for fairness

February 3, 2014 

Big-time college sports is having its Curt Flood moment. Flood was the star center fielder for the St. Louis Cardinals whose objection to a trade in 1969 after 12 years with the team led him to sue Major League Baseball for free agency. He lost his suit in the US Supreme Court, but set in motion the establishment of free agency in pro sports. Flood declared, "I'm a human being. I'm not a piece of property. I am not a consignment of goods."

Flood's legacy refreshingly came to life Tuesday when Northwestern University quarterback Kain Colter announced that members of his football team, aided by the United Steelworkers, have filed for union recognition with the National Labor Relations Board. Colter told the media that players want guaranteed medical coverage for sports injuries and better academic support to boost graduation rates. They also want players to be able to keep scholarships even if they suffer career-ending injuries.

While maintaining that Northwestern treats athletes well, Colter said the exploitation at other schools makes the NCAA a "dictatorship."

Whether or not the players qualify for union status hinges upon whether they are viewed as employees and not just as students. Ramogi Huma, a former UCLA linebacker who is assisting the union effort as the head of the National College Players Association, said that, given the full-time level of in-season work and travel, only the naive would view them as students first.

"College football players get concussions just like pro players," Huma said in a telephone interview. "But there isn't yet a fund for brain injuries like the NFL now has. We know of many players who get hurt and thought their medical bills were taken care of by their universities. But then when they're out of school and try to buy a car, they find their credit is ruined because the bills went into collections with their name on them."

NCAA chief legal officer Donald Remy pooh-poohed the filing: "This union-backed attempt to turn student-athletes into employees undermines the purpose of college: an education." That ridiculous response makes me cheer even more for Colter and his teammates. It is the NCAA itself that has undermined the concept of a student-athlete.

For instance, UCLA's championship basketball teams of the 1960s and '70s played 30 games a season. The 2011 champion, Connecticut, played 41 games. In football, Ohio State, the No. 1 ranked team in 1968, played 10 games. This year's champion, Florida State, played 14.

As the number of games and days of practices have grown, NCAA rules to preserve the illusion of amateurism have become absurd. Players are suspended or even have to give back the Heisman Trophy for accepting a few hundred dollars in gifts. Huma once watched a broke UCLA teammate suspended for a game for accepting a $150 bag of groceries that turned out to be from an agent.

Meanwhile, universities, TV networks, apparel companies, and video game companies make billions of dollars off the performance of players. That makes the labor filing a welcome step. Colter said it was intended to help all players for "future generations to come." Somewhere in free agency heaven, Curt Flood is smiling and, thus, the NCAA should be quaking. College players are declaring they are not a consignment of goods.

Derrick Z. Jackson, a columnist for the Boston Globe, can be reached at jackson@globe.com.

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