Samardzija backs Northwestern football players in union fight

Samardzija backs Northwestern football players in union fight
April 13, 2014, 4:00 pm

ST. LOUIS – Jeff Samardzija worked a broken NCAA system, using Notre Dame’s national platform and leveraging his two-sport skills to get a $10 million deal from the Cubs.

Samardzija’s also a union guy who realizes he’s the outlier and understands why the Northwestern football team’s fighting for the right to collectively bargain.

“Something needs to change,” Samardzija said. “Everyone loves college football and loves the conferences and the bowl games. But something needs to be done, because let’s be honest: Football careers aren’t that long.

“Some of these kids that don’t go play in the NFL – or aren’t stars in the NFL – could really benefit from a lot of the positive things that come from the revenue they generate from being on the field.”

Standing in front of his locker inside Busch Stadium’s visiting clubhouse on Sunday morning, Samardzija said he’s followed the Northwestern test case from a distance. But the former All-American wide receiver sees the battle lines forming.

Last month, a regional director in the Chicago office of the National Labor Relations Board ruled Northwestern football players have the right to unionize as university employees. On April 25, the athletes will vote on organizing under the College Athletes Players Association.

“Is it a paycheck?” Samardzija said. “No, I don’t think that’s necessarily the right idea. But maybe something down the road. You got to graduate, obviously, first. But some kind of compensation for the amount of years you played. Once you graduate, maybe it activates or maybe it’s a long-term CD.

“There’s a way to compensate these kids for the work they do. It’s hard work. They risk a lot. A lot of no-name kids have back surgeries and neck surgeries and knee surgeries and hip surgeries. Guys that you don’t hear about. With all the money that is being produced, it would be nice to see if they did a little bit more to try and help these guys out in the long run.”

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ESPN locked up the new college football playoff with a 12-year deal reportedly worth $7.3 billion. Alabama head coach Nick Saban will be making $7 million a year. The SEC is launching its own cable network as part of the arms race with the Big Ten and Pac-12.

Samardzija comes from a union family. His father, Sam, works at Northern Indiana Public Service Company (NIPSCO), an energy distributor. That background taught the Cubs pitcher about work ethic, accountability and the sense of responsibility he feels inside the Major League Baseball Players Association. That’s making sure he doesn’t sign a below-market deal that costs future players.

Samardzija said: “I remember being a kid and (my dad) prepping us months beforehand that he might have to leave town for awhile to go find a job in Texas or Oklahoma, because they knew their agreement was coming up and they were going to have to renegotiate their contract.

“When you’re a four- or five-year-old kid planning on your dad leaving for six months to go work because his job’s about to strike, that’s tough. But you also see the benefits of it. He’s had constant work for (about) 30, 35 years now. They haven’t been on strike (and they got) great benefits. My dad’s done well for himself, put food on our table and provided for us.”

Another game-changer could be Ed O’Bannon’s class-action lawsuit against the NCAA, which is heading toward a trial in June after last week’s ruling from a federal judge. The former UCLA basketball star has challenged the way schools control an athlete’s image and likeness, profiting from big names.

“There were no 83 (jerseys) at Notre Dame before me,” Samardzija said, laughing. “There were guys wearing it, but they weren’t selling like John Smith’s jersey from the ’88 championship team. So, obviously, if they were selling 83 jerseys, I had a pretty good idea who it was representing. Now the name wasn’t on the back, but there’s just so much money going around that’s generated by college football. Something needs to be done, because the numbers don’t add up, that’s for sure.”