No, college football players aren't unionizing for pay-for-play

Kain Colter - Matt Marton-USA TODAY Sports

Tuesday, college athletes at Northwestern University began an attempt to create a union. And if you actually listen to them, they're not calling for that thing you're disagreeing with them over.

The college athlete labor movement initiated by former Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter and teammates is not about pay-for-play. It's not about schools paying salaries to players. It's not about the NCAA paying players, at this point. Colter's said so himself.

But for some reason, one reaction to the news has been to reach for arguments against pay-for-play. This is kind of like arguing against the color red as a response to someone talking up the color orange.

This reaction suggests ignorance, and it is in line with the NCAA's meticulously aloof messaging. Everyone can do better.

Be informed. Here's what the players actually want, via the National College Players Association's website (Colter has had extensive ties with the NCPA since its emergence during the 2013 season and had former UCLA linebacker and NCPA president Ramogi Huma at his side Tuesday). While the NCPA and the College Athlete Players Association labor push are not the same organization, they share leadership and presumably almost all of the same goals.

1. Minimize college athletes' brain trauma risks.

Despite record revenues, the NCAA and conferences have done little to reduce the risks of brain trauma among college athletes.  The NCPA Players Council developed the Concussion Awareness and Reduction Emergency (CARE) Plan, which should be adopted immediately.  The CARE Plan includes, reduced contact during practices, independent concussion experts on sidelines during games, and using a portion of new football playoff revenues for research and support for current and former players.

Football is potentially lethal. While it will never be risk-free, those of us who want it to continue must support absolutely everything that those in power can do to make it as safe as possible. Either an actual national governing body will eliminate defining portions of the sport later on, or the sport will mercilessly police itself right now. One will happen. The latter is better for everyone.

Does anyone object to better protecting the brains of the talent?

2. Raise the scholarship amount.

The NCAA admits that a "full scholarship" does not cover the basic necessities for a college athlete, but it refuses to change its rules to allow schools to provide more scholarship money.  The NCPA's plan is to use a relatively small percentage of new TV revenues to assist universities in providing scholarships that equal each college's cost of attendance.

This is in need of some explaining. Andy Staples does a nice job:

When Nebraska officials calculated the cost of attendance for an out-of-state student planning to live on campus for the 2011-12 school year, they told the federal government that student would have to pay $19,848 in tuition and fees, $1,020 for books and supplies, $8,196 for room and board and $3,422 for miscellaneous expenses including travel home, clothing, laundry, etc. The total cost: $32,486. According to the NCAA's definition of a full scholarship, Nebraska would only be allowed to give an athlete $29,064. That $3,422 is not covered.

Arizona State president Michael Crow puts it another way. "I had one of those scholarships as an undergraduate, but it was an ROTC scholarship," Crow said. "Thirty-nine years ago, that scholarship paid me $100 month of spending money because that was the estimate then of what I needed to take care of my incidental expenses. And that was 39 years ago. This proposal is not dramatically different from that."

And this isn't some thing being devised by SEC boosters in order to slide more money into players' hands. You can be a medical student and get a full-cost scholarship. You can be a music major. It's an existing thing all around the country.

Considering the ocean of money flowing from fans and television networks and toward coaches and campus facilities contractors, the cash is there. Many schools would have to make hard choices about keeping or downgrading football programs or joining lower divisions with fewer scholarships -- and even that's ignoring that the NCPA calls for television revenue to go directly toward scholarships.

The fact that this would alter many programs is not a reason to minimally compensate players. And if Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany is for it, it's about as seditious as oatmeal.

3. Prevent players from being stuck paying sports-related medical expenses.

The NCAA does not require schools to cover sports-related injuries - it's optional.  College athletes injured during sports-related workouts should not have to pay for medical expenses out of their own pockets.

One player's story:

[Former Oklahoma power forward Kyle Hardrick's mother] estimates the family has paid $10,000 in medical bills while its health insurance covered $20,000. "It's been difficult, no doubt," Valerie said. "You don't imagine paying those medical bills out of your own pocket when your child gets a scholarship."

That led a Congressman to declare the NCAA "the mafia."

Does anyone object to better long-term care for those who've invested the most?

4. Increase graduation rates.

The ultimate goal for a college athlete is not a scholarship, it's a degree.  Federal graduation rates for Division I football and men's basketball players hover around 50%.  The NCAA and its member colleges should invest a portion of new TV revenue into continuing education to improve graduation rates.  In addition, the NCAA should work to reduce games that take place during the week.  Although weekday games are in the interest of the TV networks, they hurt college athletes academically.

Funny, because the NCAA's chosen to characterize the union as being anti-education:

Many schools have long grumbled about having to play football games on weeknights, for reasons competitive, academic, and financial. TV contracts wouldn't be so high if not for them, though. If compromises are to be struck, here's the first one.

5. Protect educational opportunities for student-athletes in good standing.

If a coach eliminates the scholarship of a student-athlete that abides by academic, athletic, and conduct requirements, the athletic program should replace it with a non-athletic scholarship to allow the student-athletes to continue his/her education.

Oversigning-dot-commers, this one is for you.

This wouldn't end the tactic. But it would both clear up one of Alabama's self-imposed challenges while empowering the bottom-rung players: either finish studying at the University of Alabama or go play football at another school. That's much better than what they have now.

The NFLPA somewhat protects wealthy NFL players from their teams taking advantage of them. Why shouldn't college players, whom by current definition do not have money, have the same coverage?

6. Prohibit universities from using a permanent injury suffered during athletics as a reason to reduce/eliminate a scholarship.

Such actions reduce the chance for such college athletes to graduate.  College athletes put their bodies and lives on the line in their pursuit of higher education and the success of their university's athletic program.  It is immoral to allow a university to reduce or refuse to renew a college athlete's scholarship after sustaining an injury while playing for the university.

Certain schools use medical hardship scholarships more than others. And players have a wide range of reactions to them and to certain uses of grayshirting.

Would anyone object to an independent panel of medical experts advising players on whether to take these deals or not?

7. Establish and enforce uniform safety guidelines in all sports to help prevent serious injuries and avoidable deaths.

Several deaths in the college football off-season have highlighted the need for year round safety requirements that provide an adequate level of protections for college athletes from all sports.  College athletes and athletic staff should be given the means to anonymously report breaches in such safety requirements.

No one has a problem with this.

8. Eliminate restrictions on legitimate employment and players ability to directly benefit from commercial opportunities.

College athletes should have the same rights to secure employment and generate commercial revenue as other students and US citizens.  Such a measure could be designed to increase graduation rates and allow universities to retain the most talented athletes for the duration of their eligibility.

Likely the most controversial item, and it also has nothing to do with pay-for-play.

Current players aren't allowed to take money for anything, because reasons. That could be expanded to "current players aren't allowed to take money for just about anything, because of amateurism," but that doesn't really make any more sense for anyone but the NCAA's accountants.

Letting the market handle compensation both improves the livelihood of the labor and ensures no school pays a dime beyond scholarships and support. It also eliminates one mountain of bureaucracy whose only purpose is to guard against its own erosion.

Do you really want to spend one month of every year yelling about the Johnny Manziel/Cam Newton story of the season? Or do you want EA Sports to make a college football video game again, this time with real player names and small fees going to the featured athletes?

9. Prohibit the punishment of college athletes that have not committed a violation.

It is an injustice to punish college athletes for actions that they did not commit i.e. suspending a team's post-season eligibility for the inappropriate actions of boosters.  Such punishments have significant negative impacts on the short college experience of many college athletes.  Alternative forms of punishment are available and should be utilized to allow an adequate policing of the rules.

Another controversial proposal, since the NCAA's only recourse against people that break its rules has been to bomb entire programs. Some people like seeing entire institutions and communities get punished for rule-breakers, damn the collateral damage.

We've hated that for years now.

But how would cheaters be punished, if not in mass graves? The NCAA's current show-cause penalty could become a more useful tool. It essentially blackballs a specific person from taking a college job for a period of time, rather than depriving totally innocent teenagers from going to bowl games. It's more like law enforcement than the NCAA's preferred flags-and-drums ground invasion.

One fact: a thinner rulebook with fewer ambitions will mean fewer cheaters to punish. What would a post-amateurism rulebook even forbid? Let's discuss that in the comments.

10. Guarantee that college athletes are granted an athletic release from their university if they wish to transfer schools.

Schools should not have the power to refuse to release college athletes that choose to transfer.  Under NCAA rules, players that transfer without a release not only have to sit out a year, they cannot receive an athletic scholarship for a year.  This contradicts the educational mission and principle of sportsmanship that the NCAA is supposed to uphold.

Giving coaches the power to decide where former players can transfer was and is inexcusable. Assistant coaches, head coaches, athletic directors, school presidents, and conference commissioners can change jobs without any consequences, so there is no argument for requiring anything more from players. None will be given the faintest time of day here.

11. Allow college athletes of all sports the ability to transfer schools one time without punishment.

College athletes that participate in football, basketball, baseball, and ice hockey should not be denied the one-time no-penalty transfer option that is afforded to college athletes of other sports.  Such a policy is coercive and discriminatory.  All college athletes should have this freedom to ensure that they realize their academic, social, and athletic pursuits.

Currently, players lose a year of eligibility and have to sit out a year while transferring, unless they've graduated or are moving to a division whose teams offer fewer scholarships. Assistant coaches, head coaches, athletic directors, school presidents, and conference commissioners can change jobs without any consequences.

So, how many of these 11 things do you object to? One? Two? Let's hear it.

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