Will College Football Join the Steelworkers Union?

Jonathan Mahler is a sports columnist for Bloomberg View. He is the author of the best-selling "Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bronx Is Burning," the basis for the eight-part ESPN mini-series. He also wrote "The Challenge," the winner of the 2009 Scribes Book Award, and "Death Comes to Happy Valley."
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For apparently the first time in the history of college sports, a group of players -- members of the Northwestern University football team — are taking steps to form a union.

You might say that we've been building toward this moment for a little while now. ESPN reports that the movement to unionize began with Northwestern's quarterback, Kain Colter, who last season was one of a handful of players who took part in a silent protest against college sports' treatment of athletes. But there's a big difference between scrawling the letters "APU" -- All Players United -- on your uniform and filing a formal petition with the National Labor Relations Board requesting union cards.

This is a huge deal, freighted with all sorts of symbolic meaning. If certified by the NLRB, the new union would be called the College Athletes Players Association, and would be led by Ramogi Huma, a former UCLA linebacker who already runs an advocacy group for college athletes. But the players are being backed by none other than the United Steelworkers. Not only is this the union that inspired the name "Pittsburgh Steelers"; it also produced the most influential union representative in the modern history of professional sports -- Marvin Miller, the man who brought free agency to baseball.

This is not just about the symbolism, though. Whether they are successful or not, there's an undeniable real-world logic to what Colter and his teammates (and Ramogi Huma, a former UCLA linebacker and president of the National College Players Association) are doing. They are part of a class of workers who are being exploited, and are looking to lift themselves up through collective action. This may be an entirely novel concept inside the world of college sports, but it's pretty much the history of labor in America.

We don't yet know exactly what concessions the players union would ask for, but it's pretty easy to imagine: For starters, guaranteed scholarships, a fund for players to draw from after their NCAA careers are over and medical coverage that would take into account the long-term health risks of playing football. (As of now, the NCAA's position is that it's not legally responsible to protect its athletes -- even though the organization was created for that very purpose.)

Would the college players association demand that students be given proper salaries, too? Perhaps. The point is that college sports would no longer be governed by a feudal system. The players -- the workers -- would have a voice in how they were being treated. Sounds pretty radical, right?

The NCAA will, of course, do everything in it power to prevent the union from being certified. They will argue that we're not talking about steelworkers; we're talking about students, college kids, amateurs. They will argue, in other words, that college sports is a multibillion-dollar industry without employees.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the editor on this story:
Toby Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net