NCAA Labor Union: Which Side Are You On?

nw union(Written by Tom Shanahan)

Maybe you’ve heard the latest development from the College Football Spring. The Free Athletes Movement at Northwestern staged a sit-in protest at University Hall on the Evanston campus near Chicago.

FAM leader Cain Able, a former Northwestern player, based the takeover on the Free Speech Movement at California’s Berkeley campus in the 1960s. When Northwestern president I.S. Watanabe and campus police chief Connor Bull were informed, they rushed to the scene with blaring sirens and riot police. Chicago Mayor Dick Weekly gleefully volunteered reinforcements with high-tech Billy clubs.

But Northwestern’s protest didn’t get out of hand. One reason was Watanabe and Bull learned lessons from distant relatives who inflamed 1960s protests. Another was the crowd that gathered was made up of students with part-time jobs and alums paying off student loans. They offered FAM no sympathy.

Watanabe pulled out a bullhorn to negotiate with Able. Bull held back Chicago’s storm troopers. A healthy dialogue ensued.

“You have a free education at $60,000 a year,” Watanabe said, speaking evenly into the bullhorn. “You have training tables to eat better than your classmates who work part-time jobs. We have the finest facilities and weight rooms for your workouts. And for the ones who think they can play in the NFL, scouts know the address of Ryan Field for games and practices.

“We have the finest facilities. And we don’t let those geeky classmates of yours — the ones with black horn-rimmed glasses and pocket protectors who will make so much money they won’t need labor union protection — use the university equipment. They’d get in your way trying to hoist a 75-pound bench press.”

Then Watanabe cited the academic advantages.

“You have tutors to help you with your studies. We stay on your less-motivated teammates to make sure they go to class, stay eligible and understand the value of an education. And when it finally dawns upon them they were deluded about their chances to play in the NFL, they have a degree to fall back upon. Hey, we’re not Connecticut basketball with NCAA academic sanctions.”

Watanabe also added a dig at SEC football.

“Why do you think none of the SEC guys are speaking up? They know they’ve got it pretty good, that’s why.”


Able had heard enough, even though he wasn’t listening.

“What about Adrian Peterson of the Minnesota Vikings? He played in the SEC and says we should be paid.”

Watanabe laughed.

“Oklahoma is in the Big 12. Oklahoma only seems like an SEC school; it’s Barry Switzer’s legacy. Oklahoma players are pros as soon they arrive in Norman. Why else would you go to such a god-forsaken place? Remember that Oklahoma quarterback who worked for a booster with a car dealership? The only day he showed up was payday.

“Now, I agree, you’ve made some good points about extended medical care from college injuries and scholarship money to return to school. The NCAA already is considering those ideas. But you’re talking about a labor union that makes you a university employee. You sure you want the IRS checking up on you?


Watanabe couldn’t resist another dig at FAM. He added with a salacious chuckle, “And, hey, hey, those parties in the dorms, apartment complexes and rented old houses around campus after a Wildcats win aren’t so bad.”

Able had heard enough. He shouted back at Watanabe, “What about guys like A.J. McCarron at Alabama and other quarterbacks in the SEC? McCarron is marrying a former Miss Alabama that Brent Musberger drools over on the air. Now McCarron has a post-college job waiting for him — a reality show with her. We want Northwestern to recruit a Miss Alabama, a Miss Georgia or a Miss Texas to walk around our campus. We need girls for our offensive linemen, too.

“At the very least, we’d like a few female students like that one at Duke who calls herself Belle Knox. You know, she’s the one who said she performed in porn videos to pay for her $60,000 education.”

Watanabe had ready response for that one.

“If that’s all you want out of a college football experience, you should have gone to Alabama in the first place. They’ve got the alumni handshakes — you know, crisp Benjamin Franklins passed between palms — and willing girls for you to live the pro lifestyle. Why do you think Alabama coach Nick Saban said he supports more rights for players? His school has the money to pay for it.

“USC used to have a good deal going, but then that greedy, ego-maniac Reggie Bush — who can’t run inside the tackles against NFL defenses — blew it for future greedy Trojans. He failed to pay back an agent he signed with early and then the agent blew the whistle to the NCAA.

“But, oh, I forgot — Alabama and USC didn’t recruit you,” said Watanabe, turning sardonic. “Northwestern gave you a chance to play Big Ten football instead of those other offers you had from the WAC or the MAC. Geez, the WAC doesn’t even play football anymore. You knew when you came here you had to work harder than kids at Alabama if you wanted to compete against football factories.”


Watanabe decided to mix in some 9/11 reality. He added that student-athletes at West Point, Annapolis and Colorado Springs signed up for a five-year military commitment in exchange for a $60,000-per-year education and a chance to play football at Army, Navy and Air Force, respectively.

“And you guys are crying about a labor union? Allow me to share a quote from Stanford coach David Shaw; he agrees with me in opposing labor unions in college football. Before Stanford played Army last year, Shaw said, ‘I mentioned to the team yesterday we’re playing against young men willing to do things down the road we are not willing to do.'”

That patriotic comment elevated the cheering behind Watanabe.


By now, the crowd wanted to be heard. Shazaam Napier cupped his hands to his mouth and said, “Don’t believe my distant cousin Shabazz Napier when he said after the NCAA finals that he went to bed starving. I asked him, ‘What, a cheerleader kept you from making it in time to the Connecticut training table?”

Trouble was most people couldn’t hear Shazaam without a bullhorn. Cale Webber grabbed it from Watanabe’s grasp.

“You guys remind me of our family’s disowned distant cousin, Chris Webber. You know — the Michigan man who refused the request of his teammate, Jalen Rose, to appear in Rose’s revisionist history of the Fab Five era on an ESPN documentary.

“The NCAA says Chris took serious dollars from a shady booster at the same time he suckered sportswriters with his sob story. He cried he couldn’t buy a hamburger while Michigan made money off his jersey. I asked him, ‘Do you think Eastern Michigan could make money selling your jersey?’ Those Michigan/Webber jerseys sold because of his talent AND Michigan’s history and prestige. First you need the name on the front of the jersey before the name on the back can sell it.”

Watanabe, who started his academic career at USC, thought to himself as he remembered a conversation with the late Junior Seau when he played for the Trojans. One of his teammates had been arrested in an ATM mugging. Junior said buying a hamburger wasn’t the problem if you were from a poor background. It was the money other students had that made you feel like an outsider. “A lot of money at this school,” he said. “A lot of money.”

A Northwestern fan grabbed the bullhorn.

“How about paying back some of that $60,000 for the seven-game losing streak we suffered through last season after you got us excited with a 4-0 start? My tickets were expensive. You guys couldn’t even beat Michigan.”

Men athletes from so-called minor sports and women’s college athletes spoke up. They asked Able what happens to their opportunities if football keeps grabbing more and more of the pie. The women, who are smarter than your average Joe Jock, added Able has overlooked the fact that most college athletic departments lose money. What happens to them?

A quarterback someone identified as Johnny Me-Zell offered his two cents. “Do you think a third-string offensive tackle or a women’s field hockey player deserves the same extra benefits as me? Do you think field hockey should be funded on my back?”


Finally, Johnson Kennedy, a distant cousin of Lincoln Kennedy, a 6-foot-7, 380-pounder who played 11 NFL seasons after his college career at Washington, grabbed the bullhorn. Johnson was as big as Lincoln, so no one took it away.

Johnson explained complaints athletes are exploited is as old as college sports. He looked up a presidential quote from a Sept. 21, 1992 Sports Illustrated article and read it to the crowd.

“My cousin Lincoln Kennedy once proclaimed as a student from Washington’s campus, ‘I look around at what football has given me. I can have this education, at a top university, and all I have to do is play football?’ ”

Heads in the crowd nodded in agreement. People silently began to return home, including the FAM protestors.

Watanabe sighed and said to no one in particular: “Able’s hope to re-organize college sports is well-intended, but so have been NCAA president Mark Emmert’s efforts at the thankless task of NCAA reform. We’re talking about sports and money. It may be there is no solution.”



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s