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Klonsinski: The fault in our college football system

| Thursday, August 27, 2015

We all have those moments in life when we come across something that makes us pause, makes us confused for a couple seconds. Something that’s not necessarily wrong per se, but something that’s definitely not right.

You look at this thing — whatever it is — and you just can’t help but think there’s something terribly inefficient or restrictive about it. But you also notice that in order to replace this thing, you’ll basically have to completely take it apart, rework, rethink or even start from scratch and build it over again, which will call for a lot of effort, creative thinking and money. So you have to weigh those costs with the costs of just working with this thing as it is. At a certain point though, the thing just needs to go.

Like a piece of dorm furniture held together with generous amounts of duct tape. Or whatever it is that’s on top of Donald Trump’s head.

Or our current college football system.

Even before former Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter and some of his teammates first raised the issue of unionizing in college athletics, something hasn’t seemed right with players who bring in millions of dollars to their school having little direct say in, well, anything.

On Aug. 17, the national branch of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) dismissed a unionization request by Northwestern football players. The ruling overturned that of regional NLRB director Peter Sung Ohr in March 2014, which had originally allowed players on Northwestern’s football team to form a union.

Interestingly enough though, the NLRB’s ruling didn’t focus on whether or not college athletes — particularly those in the big money sports like football and men’s basketball — were employees of the university (it actually even appeared to concede the players had a strong case on this point). The board instead said allowing private school football players to unionize would not have the effect of “promot[ing] uniformity and stability” in labor relations “due to the nature and structure of NCAA Division I Football Subdivision.”

First off, the irony of the NLRB effectively declaring — not denying or failing to deny — “college football” and “labor relations” belong in the same conversation despite the long-standing argument from universities, the NCAA and even state governments saying college athletes are not part of the labor force of their respective universities really jumps out at me.

Yet what grabs even more of my attention is how it seems most of the country’s leadership just keeps trying to add another piece of duct tape to the situation. They are scared of the uncertainty and hard work overhauling an outdated and oppressive system. So instead they hide, deny and further complicate the system.

In fact, Michigan’s state legislature passed a law back in December that preemptively banned student-athletes at the state’s public universities from being able to unionize.

Michigan House Bill 6074 states “a student participating in intercollegiate athletics on behalf of a public university in this state … is not a public employee entitled to representation or collective bargaining rights under this act.” That’s right. There’s literally a part of a law on the books in Michigan for the singular reason of saying student-athletes cannot be considered university employees. Ohio also included a similar resolution in a budget package.

Eventually the tape roll is going to run out, though. And it’s going to be sooner rather than later.

Colter likened the NLRB’s decision to punting the issue away from them, which seems fair to me. None of the major players in this situation besides the actual players have had the initiative to take on the work of doing something about it, either flat out denying the problem or seeking quick fixes (removing some food restraints, à la Shabazz Napier). Luckily, the former’s voices have diminished the more we’ve talked about this as a country.

It’s time for more than talk, however. The players themselves tried and they’ve found themselves at a dead end, so now this action must come from the NCAA and the universities themselves. A little pressure from the fans wouldn’t hurt either, though.

I’m not saying college athletes need to paid millions. I’m just saying we need to fix an outdated system.

We need to give them a voice.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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About Zach Klonsinski

A History graduate, Zach spent all four of his years on campus as a resident of Knott Hall. Hailing from Belgrade, Montana, he covered a wide variety of sports in his time at Notre Dame, including Football, Hockey, Men's Basketball, Men's Soccer, Women's Tennis, Fencing, Rowing, Women's Lacrosse and other events around campus. You can contact him in his post-graduation travels and job search at zklonsinski@gmail.com

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  • GLC

    Once you start paying athletes, call it COA (cost of attendance) or whatever, then they’re subject to the same strictures as employees. Cincinnati coach Tuberville and Virginia Tech coach Bud Foster have run afoul of public opinion for wanting to fine players for certain behaviors such as missing a team breakfast or tutoring session, parking tickets, destroying a dorm room, and even play-related fines such as drawing a personal foul. ND Coach Brian Kelly was asked to weigh in yesterday on the Dan Patrick Radio Show. Kelly’s remarks seemed to show he was on the same lining of thinking as Arizona AD Greg Byrne who said, “…Take away playing time. Make them do community service. Run stairs. There are lots of things you can do.” The optics are bad if you take away scholarship money. You may even be creating legal precident for unionizing if you pay them. But the reality is that athletes do rack up parking fines, and destroy dorm rooms, and they are not held accountable like normal students because the powers that be want them on the playing field. So coaches are trying to find ways to incentivize good behavior and deincentivize bad behavior–witholding money is one way, albeit misguided. Perhaps one Power Five AD has the answer, “…the better approach is documenting all of the missteps by an athlete and using those to dismiss the player if necessary, not reduce financial aid.” That’s not really reality though, is it? FSU has shown observers that even theft, lying and sexual assault aren’t enough to dismiss a star athlete. While it’s the balliwick of schools to decide on disciplinary options, once an institution starts paying athletes, there are generally accepted employment principles that cannot be overlooked. The inevitable result of which will be, “You’re fired,” as Trump would say, perhaps for something as little as trashing a dorm room or runnnig afoul of city parking ordinances. But it’s even much more problematic if you pay players, because it inevitably devolves into bidding wars, because some schools cannot offer a prestige name, degree, facilities, and all that comes with a “full ride” at a great institution. All that some of these schools can offer is cash. And what will 90% of the athletes want more, cash or a quality education? In theory, Phoenix Online University might be able to pay more than some FBS programs, and its payers might not even care if they win so long as they’re paid. Do we really want to go down that rabbit hole?

  • Captain Murphy

    I usually come to the ND Observer to make fun of the articles, but this was a really good one.

  • Captain Murphy

    I usually come to the ND Observer to make fun of the articles, but this was a really good one.