A players union helped save the NFL's season. College football's may be doomed because it doesn't have one

Charles Robinson
·NFL columnist
·5-min read

One month ago — when it seemed the NCAA and colleges across America were adamant about playing football this fall — critics (including some players) pointed at COVID-19 infection rates spiking across parts of the country and took aim.

This was outrageous, some said, more proof than ever that college football players need a union.

One month later, with multiple college conferences pulling the plug on the very football season they seemed adamant about playing, a whole different set of critics (including some players) are firing back.

This is outrageous, yadda, yadda, yadda — more proof than ever that college football players need a union.

Well, at least the two sides can attack the decision from opposite directions and come to at least one agreement: College football players deserved to have a voice — and maybe even a vote — in what transpired over the past month. For whatever reason (tradition, mostly), a precious few power brokers continue to make virtually every single decision about the welfare, responsibility and earning capacity of a labor force that produces a collective economy of small countries.

It’s shamateursim at its best. And again, it’s pretty much the most lasting tradition we have in college football.

But there is something that would have made this entire debacle easier to swallow, even if a resolution still hadn’t been reached. A mechanism that could have aired the grievances, concerns and motivations of the most significantly impacted group. That mechanism is called a players union. And if college football had one, an element of public opinion and a football season could have been driven by the labor force that has been marginalized in every part of this process.

The NFL Players Association logo is shown.
The NFL Players Association played a key role in keeping the 2020 season on track, at least as it stands now. (Rich Graessle/PPI/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

That’s right, a players union. Like the one in the NFL, which somehow managed to work with arguably the greediest team owners in professional sports to create the common ground necessary to pull off a 2020 season. The same union that navigated the significant fears of its players while simultaneously creating opportunities for them to disagree with (and even opt out of) the decision to play through the pandemic.

This is what unions do. They streamline the collective voice of the membership, fight for whatever that membership deems important, then take a portion of the responsibility (and blame) out of the hands of a unilateral set of decision makers who are typically operating out of their own self-interests.

That’s what the conference commissioners, college presidents and NCAA executives are doing right now, by the way. They’re operating in their own best interests while painting the actions as what’s safe and best for their captive labor. And all the while, they’re preserving the status quo of how NCAA schools work collectively — through a cynical process of control and inhibition disguised as education as amateurism. A familiar process that keeps a very small few at the top dictating what’s best for the vast numbers down below.

The foundation of that model is cracking. Whether it’s from legislation forcing the NCAA to accept that players deserve “Name, Image and Likeness” benefits, or the players themselves realizing that they have a voice in matters that range from social justice to labor reform, the ground is shaking beneath this system. And the decision to wipe out an entire college football season without even consulting the players who make that season possible … that could be the shockwave that delivers a paradigm shift.

Regardless of what side you take with the 2020 college football season — whatever set of data you accept as being the one that proves your point is right — there is little getting around the fact that a union would have made an immense difference in how all of this was hashed out. If only for the fact that it would have given the players a chosen, collective voice at the table, and a unified podium on the public relations front.

That’s precisely what it did in the NFL, where not every player was ready to blaze a path forward without some significant questions being answered. There were heated discussions, meetings, emails, conference calls, social media exchanges, internal votes and external statements. And what ultimately came out on the other side was this:

NFL players threshed through their own democratic process inside their union, and then went to work with the 32 franchise ownership groups and the league office to satisfy what was ultimately needed to play a football season. Whether the public agreed with it or not didn’t matter because it was the collective choice of the players. And those who disagreed with it were given the opportunity to opt out of the final decision.

It would be far easier to feel good about whatever decision is made in college football if we actually knew what the overall labor force would do if it were given its own democratic vote. Maybe the college football season becomes far more palatable if a college players union had echoed what the NFL’s did, and argued for a season with the right collectively bargained measures and protections in place.

For college players to reach that choice, the NCAA first has to recognize the players for what they are — a vast labor force that produces billions of revenue that is deemed worthy of having rights at a bargaining table. And we all know how the NCAA feels about that. A century’s worth of history has spelled out precisely how much volume the NCAA is willing to allow when it comes to the voices of its labor force. Very little. And when it comes to power to choose how and when to play, even less.

That’s a big part of why the 2020 college football season is being dictated without so much as a single player having any influence on it. Tradition, mostly.

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