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Perspective | Northwestern’s scandal makes it clear: College athletes need a union

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Before Wilma Liebman helped mediate an end to the mid-1990s baseball strike that looked as though it would go on forever, she was a union lawyer. One of her clients was the Bricklayers and Allied Craftsmen; you know, construction workers, a trade steeped so long in overt masculinity that its argot has included obscene language to classify particular tasks and tools. Still does, probably.

What was most important when Liebman got on board was that the hard hats were resolving a lawsuit brought against them by women who said they were being sexually harassed as they entered the men’s ranks.

“Groups of women who had been subject to hazing,” Liebman recounted to me. “There was some pretty ugly stuff.”

But the union, under Liebman’s guidance, protected its neophyte members and started educating those in seniority about the pitfalls of pigheadedness — the same kind of behavior in the spotlight now in college sports after what appears to be systemic hazing in Northwestern University athletics, replete with sexual and racial abuse.

What is being uncovered at Northwestern, my alma mater, is exactly why college athletes should unionize. That Bronny James last week became the second USC basketball player in as many years to suffer cardiac arrest during a summer practice is precisely why college athletes must unionize. That in the wake of all of this, Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) and Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-Ala.) — the former college football coach who made millions heavily off unpaid Black male labor, then compared that class to criminals at a Trump rally last year — introduced a bill last week to control how much college athletes can earn on their own, rather than a bill to protect those athletes’ health and welfare, is also why college athletes need a union.

College athletes need to be protected from themselves. They need to be protected from those who take advantage of them as Tuberville did in his previous employment, which the architect of the modern NCAA, Walter Byers, explained in his confessional, “Unsportsmanlike Conduct: Exploiting College Athletes.” And the institutions of supposed higher learning that have let the tail of sports wag their societal mission need to let their athletes organize to protect the institutions themselves from the lawsuits and reputational harm done by college sports gone awry.

Had Northwestern’s fired football coach, Pat Fitzgerald, and the administration that employed him supported an effort by its football players to unionize nearly a decade ago, he probably would not have been unceremoniously unwaged. And maybe all of his former players would have fonder memories of playing for him, rather than telling potentially felonious tales.

“What a union can do is … provide a place where the athletes can go to report abuses and problems like that,” said Liebman, whom President Barack Obama made the second woman to chair the National Labor Relations Board in 2009. “And they have the quote unquote protection of doing this collectively rather than individually and being able to go to the union rather than to the employer and face retaliation or shunning or something like that.”

NLRB General Counsel Jennifer Abruzzo, appointed by President Biden, recommended nearly two years ago that college athletes should be able to organize because “common law fully [supports] the conclusion that certain Players at Academic Institutions are statutory employees, who have the right to act collectively to improve their terms and conditions of employment.”

We don’t know if another group of college athletes has tried to pick up where the Northwestern football team left off in 2015, when the NLRB overruled its regional office that had granted the players the right to organize. But now is the time for some college locker room to act again. Actually, it’s time for a bunch them to act — or all of them. The moment has never been riper.

To be sure, one thing this reactionary Supreme Court has gotten right is ruling that colleges have been unfairly stingy with their athletes given the megabillions colleges are making off those who play football and basketball in particular. There is Johnson v. NCAA, still alive and well at the Third Circuit Court of Appeals, testing the notion that college athletes should get hourly pay for their labor just like a work-study student on campus. And Abruzzo’s deputy is Peter Sung Ohr, who ruled in favor of Northwestern football players’ right to vote to unionize as an NLRB regional director.

From Candace Buckner: Tommy Tuberville couldn’t be racist. He coached football.

“Say what you want about Jimmy Hoffa,” Ohio University professor B. David Ridpath, a former college wrestler and coach, told me, “but my dad was a Teamster. My dad had severe back issues and didn’t have medical coverage for that. But once the union was put together, the Teamsters were able to actually have representation, actually able to have greater health and welfare protections and have a seat at the table. Athletes since the beginning of college athletics have not had a seat at the table. They’ve not even had a voice in their own health and welfare protections.”

“It’s a no-brainer,” Ridpath said of whether college athletes should unionize. “The reason the NCAA gets sued so much is they’re treating college students as employees and they’re not giving them employee protections. The best way to give yourself antitrust protection is to negotiate with the labor. And if the labor agrees to these restrictions, then you have full antitrust protection. And this is also the best way to give athletes representation over their working conditions.”

They wouldn’t have been practicing during the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, as the Texas A&M men’s basketball team did, potentially jeopardizing players’ health when we weren’t sure of the danger. There would be a review of USC basketball practice protocols to be sure players weren’t being worked to near death. Northwestern’s scandal probably wouldn’t have happened.

“I really don’t understand why [there is] knee-jerk opposition [to a union for college athletes] because, to me, it seems easier for an employer to deal with a union rather than hundreds of individuals,” Liebman said. “And particularly if there is a mature relationship that develops over time between the employer and the union, they can work out problems; they can have a mechanism for resolving disputes.”

In the aftermath of Liebman’s work with the construction unionists who were making employment hell for fellow workers just because they happened to be women, the unionists saw the light. It took a while, but their amended code of conduct now pledges against “any form of ‘hazing’ by one group of members toward another.”

All these years later, the construction trade is not devoid of harassment between members. But it does have a means to obviate the kind of catastrophe that obstinate college sports officials have allowed to mar their industry.

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