I thought of this after reading two pieces on the subject in the last couple of days, "A Threat to Unionize, and Then Benefits Trickle In for Players," and Joe Nocera's column in the Times today, "Playing College Moneyball."
Kain Colter, who organized the union movement at Northwestern, is quoted in the first article (all emphasis mine):
“I mean, as a fan, it’s great fun, I love the college game,” he said of college bowl madness. “But the incredible money underlines that we are truly the engines of a multibillion-dollar industry.
In the second piece, Joe Nocera says:
On media day — yes, the College Football Playoff held a media day, just like the pros do in advance of the Super Bowl — several players noted all the money swirling around them, and wondered why they weren’t getting any of it. Bill Plaschke, the longtime sports columnist for The Los Angeles Times, wrote afterward that the playoff system had changed his view that a college education was reward enough for college athletes. He described media day as “the day college football officially turned pro,” and he added that it “truly seems ridiculous that the players are not sharing even a small piece of this value they create.”
And from another piece in the Times last spring, "Waiting Game Follows Union Vote by Northwestern Players":
Northwestern officials strongly oppose the formation of a union, and many of them, from the president to the football coach, Pat Fitzgerald, have urged the players to vote no.
And I think that's one of the reasons I've lost interest in college football. (The primary one is, of course, that I follow so much high school football that it leaves me literally no time for the college -- or pro -- game.) But also, as a (sort of) alumnus of Northwestern, I've soured a little on the program ever since the university's highest paid employee -- Fitzgerald -- took such a stand against sharing any of his compensation with the players who actually produce all that revenue. What an a*****e!
So put me firmly in the camp with those who would like to see college athletes form unions and get paid. Surprised? (I didn't think so.)
But here is a surprise: I don't expect anything to happen anytime soon. Why? Because the only actors in this drama who could actually make something happen are the players themselves, and they're not going to do it.
Why do I think this? Because I've been around high school football for so long now, and I've seen so many of these kids and their parents up close that I've decided that the vast majority of them would give their left you-know-what to play Division I football. In fact, many of them would give their left you-know-what to play Division III football. And they're happy to do it for free.
College and pro football players are being exploited by universities and the NFL. But the problem is, they don't mind being exploited. In fact, they can't get enough of it. Nothing will change in the college or pro game until the players decide to change it. And that's not happening anytime soon.
If Karl Marx were alive today I think he'd say something like, "Athletes of the NCAA and NFL unite! You have nothing to lose but your chains." (Only he'd say it better.)
But do you know what the players would say? "Who asked you, old man?"