It could be that the subversives—those who believe college football players deserve a voice in their billion-dollar enterprise—are gradually establishing field position against the establishment NCAA and its hypocritical “amateur” model.
Because, while the National Labor Relations Board held the line on the Northwestern players’ move to unionize, the NLRB, in effect, punted on Monday by not ruling on the central question of whether Northwestern’s athletes are university employees.
It is true that legal authorities are mostly surprised that the full NLRB board did not uphold last year’s decision by a NLRB regional director, granting the Big Ten school’s players a right to bargain over such issues of health care and work environment. Upsets happen. But, in the meantime, ever since that rabble-rousing former Northwestern quarterback, Kain Colter, lent his face to the case for a union, the NCAA has been scrambling to demonstrate concern for its labor force.
While sticking to its bogus “student-athlete” branding, the NCAA has moved to allow its wealthiest five conferences to set some of their own standards, resulting in increased scholarship values and the guarantee that players will have a four-year ride, instead of one. That isn’t much, given the kind of money the NCAA powers are generating, and the whole process feels all the more tedious—like a two-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust offense—for anyone who has read former Notre Dame and Kansas City Chiefs lineman Michael Oriard’s 2003 book, “King Football.”
In what serves as an American studies text, examining the transformation of our popular culture as seen through football mores in mass media, Oriard includes a thorough history of the sport’s “uncertain position between work and play.”
Oriard writes that “controversies over scholarships, bowl games and other ethical issues….haunted college football since the 1890s.” And, as long ago as the 1930s, there were agitators—though rarely, and typically at such publications as the proletariat-leaning Communist Party’s Daily Worker—calling for a union in the sport.
Oriard references a 1936 column by the Daily Worker’s Lester Rodney—the first white newspaperman, by the way, who campaigned for the inclusion of blacks in Major League Baseball—is which Rodney took on the argument for “pure amateurism” in college sports. That justification, which also was applied to Modern Olympic sports for almost 100 years, overlooked the fact that well-to-do athletes were the only ones who could afford to play for nothing more than the old school spirit.
“Why not [idealize], let’s say, a youngster from the Pennsylvania mining region,” Oriard quotes Rodney, who died in 2009, “a good high school running guard who accepts the offer of a college to pay his tuition and expenses in return for playing ball on the team because he wants a college education and couldn’t get it otherwise? A boy who takes the bumps and bruises of the almost year-round practice sessions, takes on odd jobs around the campus in addition to studying and practicing so that he can send a little money home. He has a conflict. He doesn’t get headlines and much glory, he doesn’t get as much time to study as he’d like, he doesn’t particularly care for some of the snobbery of the ‘old grad’ bunch and those who look upon him as a hired hand. But then like all good players he really likes the game, likes the team camaraderie, in which boys of all types and derivations work together purposefully with high spirit, likes the learning and putting into practice of the subtleties of play, the development of himself and the team, the excitement of winning the big game, the appreciation of teammates, coaches, real fans and opponents for his hard and skillfully done anonymous work up front on the line, where more games are won and lost than in the backfield.”
Oriard also quotes Rodney’s Daily Worker colleague, Ted Benson, on the paper’s view that subsidized college players were not corrupted amateurs but underpaid workers. “Our suggestion,” Benson wrote, “is for the boys who tote the leather for dear old Alma Mammy to get wise to themselves and form the American Federation of Football Players and Substitutes under the banner of the C.I.O.”
So, here we are, some 80 years later, essentially watching the same fandango. Is college football, which at the big-time schools is funding multi-million dollar coaches’ salaries and fully professional athletic operations, just play? Or is it work?
The bolshevik question is being raised more often these days. And the NLRB avoided a definitive answer.