College football unionization debate extends to Notre Dame

College football unionization debate extends to Notre Dame
March 29, 2014, 6:15 pm
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This week's landmark ruling by the National Labor Relations Board granting Northwestern football players the right to unionize represented a key step toward reforming college athletics, and given the ruling only applied to private institutions it opened the door for unionization at Notre Dame.

Just because there's a possibility doesn't mean Notre Dame's college football players will form a union. There are still plenty of hurdles to clear for Northwestern players, but the language of the NLRB's ruling offers some important ammo for college football players.

Namely, the NLRB ruled that college football players are, by its definition, employees of a football program. So instead of a coach/student-athlete relationship, the NLRB viewed it more as an employer/employee relationship.

While Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said he hasn't thought about the union issue too much, that's a designation he doesn't necessarily agree with.

"As it relates to me personally, I’m a teacher, I’m an educator," Kelly said. "I’m more interested in relationships based on player-coach than employee. As much as we want to be in an atmosphere where we create a learning environment, I also want to be individually in a place where I’m an educator and a teacher.

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"Wherever that meets is where I stand on it, and I think there’s a long way before we have to get to that point where a decision needs to be made. I’m not at a point where I’m going to meet with our football team to discuss the pluses and minuses of putting a union together, I can say that."

Kelly added he would respect any movement from his players to discuss unionization, seeing as it fits in the spirit of a college atmosphere (and the spirit of players being student-athletes). But he cautioned there could be some unintended consequences, such players having to pay taxes on their scholarships and the like.

Former Notre Dame linebacker Dan Fox, who emphasized he was extremely happy with his experience at Notre Dame, isn't sure unions are the answer. But he saw all the money flying around college football, from TV deals to merchandise sales to video games, in his five years on campus and wondered why the players didn't see a cut of it.

"How many No. 5 Notre Dame jerseys were bought at the bookstore?" Fox said, referring to former teammate Manti Te'o. "I realize there were other No. 5's, but you're buying a Manti Te'o jersey and he didn't see a cent for it. And I realize he's going to the NFL, but it's just not fair. It's not fair."

While the NCAA has clung to the notion of amateurism, perhaps the debate created by the NLRB's ruling will lead to the end of it and create the fairness plenty of players clearly want. There's still a ways to go, but there might be enough momentum here for some real change to gradually happen at the college level.