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Saturday, May 26, 2018
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Tom Jackson Columns

Jackson: When student-athletes choose Detroit’s union experience

If the declaration last week that Northwestern University football players are employees entitled to unionize came as a surprise, the raucous rejoicing that accompanied it was not. As others gathered spades to bury the NCAA – a multibillion-dollar cartel apparently populated by the greediest collection of opportunists, system-riggers and repressor-masters this side of OPEC – a gleeful blogger for the online magazine Slate cheered, the student-athlete “charade” was “officially crumbling.”

Forgive me for not being among those flinging confetti.

I like the charade. I like the whimsical ideal of the student-athlete. Whenever they’ve thrown Patric Young’s picture on the TV screen above his major (telecommunications) and grade-point average (3.38) this season, I’ve thought, “See there? It’s entirely possible to have a feathery jump hook and be scary good on defense for a championship contender and still get it done in the classroom.”

Would I feel any differently if Florida’s athletic association provided Young some of the things sought by Northwestern’s players in their petition for union status? Things, surprisingly, that have nothing to do with actual compensation, but instead include guarantees against losing scholarships because of injuries; defrayed post-career medical expenses to treat issues related to playing; and a concussion specialist on the sideline for every game?

In a word: No. All that sounds perfectly reasonable and well-deserved. I’ll even go you a few better.

Throw in some sort of steady stipend, an allowance for family travel expenses and a premium-support voucher for the player to buy insurance against some career-ending catastrophe, I’d bleed every bit as orange-and-blue as I do this very moment, and I’d root just as loyally for UF’s Southeastern Conference kin whenever they played outside the league. Because full-ride scholarships, grand as they are, are not enough.

But, please, no unions.

We have not heard the final word on whether athletes in Division 1 marquee sports are, in fact, employees first, students not so much, and I have Young’s GPA to back me up. The opinion of Chicago-based National Labor Relations Board Regional Director Peter Sun Ohr is just that. There will be appeals, and, if push comes to bloodied nose, congressional intervention to accommodate “student-athlete” within the National Labor Relations Act.

This is not to say Ohr got it wrong. That’s a job for Northwestern’s lawyers. Instead, it’s to say that even if Ohr is correct, the road to wrecking the marvelous, passion-inspiring spectacle that is major college sports will be paved by players owing more allegiance to their Collegiate Athletes Players Association local than to their universities.

Unions lead to collective bargaining, which produces impasses, which become strikes. Because today’s modest, reasonable concessions will not be satisfactory tomorrow when there is a board and an executive director and dues and a political-action committee all devoted to the single goal of cutting ever-larger pieces of the NCAA pie.

Those celebrating the NLRB ruling might be fine with that. The wary rest of us who rue the havoc wrought by unions in Detroit and on countless public pensions will find other ways to occupy our autumn Saturdays, and our tame, melancholy Marches.

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