Update, Jan. 28 2014: ESPN's Outside The Lines reports departing Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter is leading former teammates to form a labor union for college football players.
Here's lawyer Patrick Vint from October on what this all means:
A few weeks ago, a show of support by football players from Georgia Tech, Northwestern, and Georgia was the most prominent display yet by supporters of the National College Players Association. The NCPA states that it exists "to provide the means for college athletes to voice their concerns and change NCAA rules." Of particular interest: Player safety, sports-related medical expenses, graduation rates, scholarship terms, endorsement and employment opportunities, and player transfer rules.
Notably excluded from the NCPA list of missions and goals: Pay-for-play athletics. The APU asks for scholarship amounts to be raised to match the full cost of attendance -- an idea endorsed by Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany, among others -- but not for a salary to be paid by universities. It also asks that scholarships be protected for players who are in good standing but who have their athletic scholarships eliminated by coaches, as well as athletes that suffer permanent injuries. Many universities follow this protocol today.
The NCPA, which was started by a group of UCLA football players, is smart to aim low. While the organization has said it has no intention of becoming a "union" for college athletes, the NCPA is following the playbook of the first great sports labor movement: Major League Baseball.
The MLBPA was founded in 1953 as an outgrowth of prior players' associations. At the time, a player was a captive of the "reserve clause," a standard clause in MLB player contracts which allowed the franchise to retain rights to a player upon expiration of the contract. Players on expired contracts would either have to sign a new contract with the team or push for a release. Baseball owners, who have held an antitrust exemption for years, agreed amongst themselves to limit releases, thereby keeping players off the open market and salaries down.
When former United Steel Workers of America lead negotiator Marvin Miller became executive director of the MLBPA in 1966, both he and his union desperately wanted to remove the reserve clause. Player holdouts led to a collective bargaining agreement between the Union and ownership, but that agreement left the reserve clause in place. Players received an increase in minimum salary -- from $6,000 per year to $10,000 -- for the first time in 20 years, but the remainder of the regime remained largely intact. It was a modest improvement, but an improvement nonetheless.
Four years later, Miller got the owners to agree to stop taking disputes to the commissioner -- who was employed by the owners -- and, instead, to consult an independent arbitrator. The arbitration agreement gave players a fair tribunal, in which all other disputes could be handled.
Two years later, the Union conducted a strike over player pensions. When Oakland owner Charlie Finley refused to pay into a contractually required pension fund for Catfish Hunter, the arbitrator ruled that Finley's breach of the contract made Hunter a free agent.
One year later, arbitrator Peter Seitz issued a decision that nullified the reserve clause for players who played one season without a contract. The reserve clause was dead, and free agency was born, with the stroke of a pen, as the result of a constant push for moderate and consensus improvements to the system.
There is nobody -- not players, not coaches, not athletic directors, not right-thinking fans -- who is opposed to improving player safety. Measures to minimize risk of brain trauma, paralysis, and death are, pun not intended, no-brainers. Pointing out these issues by wearing homemade armbands and pushing for modest reforms will lose few supporters.
The same goes for graduation rates, scholarships for athletes in good standing, and a wide variety of other NCAA enforcement issues. Even the nation's athletic directors, who are vehemently opposed to paying players, acknowledge that NCAA enforcement is broken and needs to be fixed:
While recent reports have chronicled the ineffective NCAA governance and enforcement systems, the Division 1A athletics directors have pledged to be active participants in the process to bring about change, calling for streamlining and efforts that complement and align with the values of higher education.
Much of the rest of the NCPA's list of goals reads like that first, modest move by the MLBPA nearly 50 years ago. The push for a "full cost of attendance" scholarship echoes baseball's push for a higher minimum salary. Making sure that players aren't forced to pay for medical expenses related to their play and can remain in school if they can no longer play their chosen sport mirror the demand for better pensions.
And the final two points -- guaranteeing a player's release if he or she wishes to transfer and allowing a one-time transfer without punishment -- is a push against the collegiate sports version of the reserve clause, the National Letter of Intent. It's the Letter of Intent that includes all of those noxious clauses that make college athletics feel less like amateurism and more like an exercise in absurdity. Breaking down that one small barrier, the transfer clause, opens every other provision to review and revision.
Much like with baseball, incremental change in college sports is the precursor to big, widespread change. Even more than with baseball, public support is essential to collegiate athletes' success. Conspicuous protest -- things like homemade armbands with hashtags written in Sharpie -- of modest goals is precisely what is needed. The NCPA's first step is the right one.