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Is playing college sports an actual job?

A look at the debate surrounding the recent push by current and former players for Northwestern University to organize as a union

Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

In 1894, there was a major strike that turned downright nasty on the Southside of Chicago when workers for the Pullman Railroad Company decided they had had enough bad treatment from their boss, and alleged namesake of our hometown, George Pullman. One hundred twenty years later, and a trip north up the L Train, more rumblings of discontent can be heard around the Windy City.

This time they are not coming from workers being forced to take pay cuts and live in a confined area. Instead, grievances are being voiced by current and former student-athletes that live or have lived in dorms and have played college football at Northwestern University for coach Pat Fitzgerald.

Spearheading the movement to organize is former Wildcat quarterback Kain Colter. Colter was able to successfully mobilize the support of labor unions to argue to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) that playing football constitutes a job.

The basis of this argument revolves around football being a job since players play on scholarships and these scholarships are contingent on their on-field performance. Moreover, players are left to cover their own medical bills and expenses that result from injuries sustained in competition and training.

A couple of weeks ago, the National Labor Relations Board handed the players a notable victory ruling that the players could organize. As Jason Kirk points out, round one is in the books, and it goes to the players. This is just getting started.

Like all schools, WSU has not been immune to controversies between players and coaches. Fall 2012 was certainly not a happy time for WSU football. It was a difficult year of transition, allegations, investigations, and ugly losses. And then the Cougs won the 2012 Apple Cup, Mike Leach and staff were cleared in an investigation, and the 2013 season was surprisingly successful. Things have simmered down quite a bit since then. Those times seem like ages ago for most WSU football fans at this point.

Still, it is worth a revisit for the sake of hypothetical.

Take, for example, the departure of Marquess Wilson, who left the team after walking out of a conditioning practice the day after the Cougars suffered a noncompetitive 49-6 loss at the hands of Utah. A week later, Wilson leveled allegations of abuse against Leach and his staff. It would be an oversimplification to say that Wilson's departure was the only player-coach issue on the team that season. But, it was clearly the defining low point of the season.

How might things have been different if there was a union in place, if at all? Could having a union in place in 2012 for the players have mitigated the outcome in a way that would have been beneficial to the program and the overall objectives of WSU's athletic program?

Before we can even begin to speculate, let’s look at both sides of the issue.

I don’t think it is too much of a stretch to say that there wasn’t even unity on the 2012 WSU football team. Team sports just seem to work that way, because they have a zero sum nature to them. Certain players are going to play at the expense of others. Departures and transfers from teams can occur on weekly and monthly bases. Not everybody will have their expectations met and no single coach has ever made all of his or her athletes happy. Ideally, as fans, we want to tell ourselves it’s all about the team. But, that’s just an ideal. Reality suggests there are far more ‘I deals’ than ideals in team sports.

How might things have been different in 2012 at WSU if there was a union in place, if at all?

Unions require unity. One of the most popular arguments for their existence is their democratic nature of giving "the people" a voice. Not all of Fitzgerald’s players and former players are united on this issue. Sippin' on Purple documents the division at Northwestern among players and administrators. Obviously, Fitzgerald has been able to meet some players’ expectations and not others.

On the other hand, you have coaches making well above the national average incomes in comparison to other adults their age. The incentives these coaches have to retain their jobs or receive promotions, some that would multiply their current salaries several times over, are enormous. Even with set guidelines by the NCAA, it would be beyond naïve to think that many coaches are not pushing the envelope as far as possible to get the most they can on the field out their student athletes. And, needless to say, not all coaching styles are the same to begin with.

This article by SB Nation’s Patrick Vint lists details of the main grievances mentioned by the players. These grievances include 50-60 hour weeks devoted to football during August camp, 40-50 hour weeks during the season, and tightly structured schedules when the team travels for road games.

If true, these grievances fly in the face of the stated mission of the NCAA to emphasize the student over the athlete by providing educational opportunities to student-athletes based on the application of their talents in the field of athletics. Whatever your GPA might have been, adjust it to what it likely would have been if you would have had to follow such a schedule. Some of us might wonder if we would even have degrees, and having any sort of life outside of sports would appear impossible.

So what is your view of college athletes organizing into unions? What are the pros and cons? What could it mean or not mean for WSU specifically?*

*Ahem: This is not an open opportunity to break from community guidelines forbidding discussion of political issues.. Please keep the conversation specifically to unions for college athletes and/or the possible impact the could have here at WSU. Whatever your view is on labor unions, I’m sure it is the correct one. So, please, don’t rub it in.