College Football Players Deserve a Union

David Pinsonneault
5 min readAug 17, 2020

The NCAA routinely reports more than $1 billion in its audited financial reports. None of that money, however, goes to revenue generating athletes in the way that it should.

Amidst a global pandemic, something really intriguing is happening that could change college football forever. Players are talking to one another, recognizing their worth, and realizing how little say they have in their working conditions.

It seemed as though college football was going to move forward with its season just a few short weeks ago. Then the player rumblings began. They want us to risk our necks so they can get paid. The “they” being referred to is a vast network of stakeholders who profit off of college athletics. It refers to college administrators, the NCAA, coaches, and sponsors. Players have engaged in this system knowing the physical risks involved but now face exposure to a deadly virus. A global pandemic is what it took for them to think they should be consulted in things that pertain to them.

PAC 12 and Big 10 players spearheaded efforts to form unity groups, which made demands around safety issues. While this has not garnered the attention it should have, this has spurred dialogue across the country. Two major conferences essentially laid the groundwork to begin a push towards collective bargaining.

This set off shock waves among those who want to keep their power over the unpaid labor available to them. The aforementioned conferences quickly announced plans to cancel the season. While that seems to be a response to address player concerns, it is in fact a way not to address them at all. One has to wonder if their motivation for postponing the season is to get any talks of unionization to die down before going back to business as usual. Business as usual = not profit sharing with your employees.

There has been one major push for unionization in college athletics in the 2010s. Kain Colter, a prominent player at Northwestern, led the charge to recognize athletes as workers. A majority of players signed union cards, which triggered an NLRB (National Labor Relations Board) hearing to rule on whether or not players are workers. Is being a college football player a job? The players involved in organizing efforts were quickly targeted by coaches and administrators who sought to isolate them. Head Coach Pat Fitzpatrick was particularly egregious, testifying against his players during the NLRB hearing, while giving less than stellar answers as to if he would strip a kid of their scholarship if he felt they weren’t playing well enough. In other words, players definitely felt that they had to perform well at work in order to get paid (through their scholarship). And while some argue college football players don’t need a union because many receive scholarships, a union would better allow them to see all of the revenue around their labor. It is very probable that there is a lot more than scholarship money to go around.

The Northwestern case played out in tragic fashion. The NLRB Regional Board ruled that players could form a union. The University then used every means available to them to launch an anti-union campaign. Do we really think they spent money to squash the union in the interests of the players? That’s how it was spun, at least. Coach Fitz became the face of the anti-union movement. When he first spoke publicly after the NLRB decision, he said he would be “educating” his players and that he was anti-union. A head coach is a father figure and mentor to their players. In this case, Fitz wedged that role and manipulated his workers from doing something in their best interests. Players were subjected to a toxic environment in the lead-up to the vote and the votes were eventually impounded. We still don’t know the results of their election but Barack Obama’s NLRB National Board reversed the local board ruling classifying players as workers and the election became null.

Look, Fitz seems fine but when push came to shove, the guy making more than $2 million a year, the guy who is the highest paid employee on the campus, provided players with “facts” prior to them voting on unionization. It is illegal to threaten players who want to unionize but he did everything in his power to drive a no vote. We don’t know if he was successful but anti-union employers tend to follow this kind of a playbook, and it works.

We are already seeing some current players acting as NCAA apologists. Some players have come out vociferously in support of playing football this season. Trevor Lawrence, perhaps the highest profile player in college football, and Justin Fields were among two of those voices. They both have coaches that will surely be against unionization. Dabo Swinney (Head Coach of Clemson/Trevor Lawrence) has already said as much. He supports an associationbut no player union. It’s disappointing to have high profile players undermine some real organizing that’s happening. Fields started a petition that anybody can sign online to show support for the season taking place. When high profile athletes lead with wanting to play, college football becomes partisan. You need to lead with safety concerns and the inequity of who is profiting off of what is happening on the field before turning to whether or not games should be played.

College football needs unionization. Speaking plainly, most associations lack the teeth to accomplish very much. An association is a way to make the players feel valued without changing the power dynamic at play. A union enables players to open up the books and see what money is around the game and negotiate how much of that they think should be going into their pockets.

It is looking like college football might not happen at all this fall. And while that keeps players safe, it also might put a damper in organizing efforts. I would like to see national unions step up and sign players on union cards now. It will be harder for administrations to push for no votes with real safety concerns on players’ minds. Service Employees International Union (SEIU) has launched nationwide organizing efforts in the past for fast food workers and for adjunct faculty. I do not know what union is going to claim to have jurisdiction here. Maybe it’s the NFLPA but I tend to think they might be a little too cozy with the NCAA to commit the necessary resources to this kind of a campaign. A large national union or group of unions should put resources into this fight now.

Organizing drives may very well result in union membership (dues $$$) but many of the issues at play here cross sect a number of issues unions care about, or are supposed to care about. A lot of college football players are non-white. The people making money off of them are largely white. With Black Lives Matters activism at an all-time high, this is a good chance for a union to educate them on the benefits of joining.

#1- collective bargaining.

#2- fighting for the social issues you care about.

There has never been more momentum to change the injustices in college athletics. Players need to take the next step and start signing union cards now and get ready for the court battles that will ensue.

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David Pinsonneault

Union/Political Organizer @SEIU. Alum @BarackObama. Chicago living. Blood clot survivor. 15x marathon finisher. Always looking for better.