Leo W. Gerard: College athletes need a union

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Crusading lawyer Crystal Eastman is the connection between members of the United Steelworkers union and scholarship football players at Northwestern University.

In 1907, Eastman, who devoted her life to seeking justice and civil liberties, joined a team of experts who studied working and living conditions in what was then the grimy, smoky, industrial city of Pittsburgh. They produced a groundbreaking work called “The Pittsburgh Survey.”

The chapter Eastman wrote on industrial injuries and deaths explains why the USW is paying the legal costs for the College Athletes Players Association to seek recognition from the National Labor Relations Board to represent the Northwestern football players as a labor union. The issue for the athletes, as it was for turn-of-the-20th-century steelworkers, is workplace safety.

Eastman found that more than 500 Pittsburgh area industrial workers died on the job each year and that thousands more were injured. The industrialists who made fortunes on workers’ labor virtually never paid medical bills, burial fees or survivor benefits.

College football players have similar grievances. The schools that rake in billions from the labor of student athletes routinely revoke at the end of the academic year the scholarships of players whose gridiron injuries terminate their football careers. The schools almost never pay medical costs for those injuries after the athletes leave school. Colleges and the National Collegiate Athletic Association also have refused to provide players with effective policies to prevent and treat head injuries.

In Eastman’s chapter of “The Pittsburgh Survey” — titled “Work Accidents and the Law” — she called for states to pass worker compensation laws, similar to those that Germany and Britain had already adopted, to provide benefits to injured workers and to families of those killed on the job.

Over the decades since then, every state has passed worker compensation legislation and the nation’s union movement has lobbied successfully to strengthen workplace health and safety laws. In addition, the USW and other unions routinely demand workplace-specific health and safety protections when negotiating labor contracts with employers.

The USW did not exist in 1907. It wasn’t founded until 1942. Steel magnate Andrew Carnegie had succeeded in killing off nascent labor organizations in his shops so that by 1901 none of his Western Pennsylvania millworkers was represented by a union that could negotiate for safety improvements.

This history helps explain why the USW is so committed to helping the Northwestern University football players secure a union. It’s not about money. The players aren’t asking for cash. They want safety. And a little scholarship security.

They want medical coverage for sports-related injuries sustained by current and former players. They want comprehensive efforts to prevent traumatic brain injuries. They want universities to establish educational trust funds to help former athletes complete degrees. And they want injured players to keep their scholarships.

The USW first got involved with college football in 2001. That’s when Ramogi Huma, a former UCLA linebacker, asked the Steelworkers for help. Mr. Huma turned to the USW because he knew it had assisted his university’s chapter of Students Against Sweatshops. With aid from the USW, Mr. Huma formed the National College Players Association in 2001 to advocate for better treatment for university players.

For many athletes, minimizing head injuries is the most crucial issue because of mounting evidence showing concussions can lead to brain damage, even death. Last season, players across the country, including Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter, wore wristbands with the initials APU. It stands for All Players United for reform of NCAA and university rules regarding athletic concussions. The college players association flew a banner over the Rose Bowl that said, “All Players United for Concussion Reform, Wake up NCAA!”

But the NCAA has been unresponsive, as if unconscious. And that is a big part of the reason Mr. Colter turned to Mr. Huma to take the next step — unionization of college players.

Individuals had pleaded with the colleges and the NCAA. Some players have even sued. Maybe, they figured, a group approach would work better. Messrs. Huma and Colter spoke with Northwestern players, and the vast majority signed cards seeking union representation by the new group, the College Athletes Players Association.

In the experience of too many players, too many schools place precious little emphasis on the “student” in student-athlete. Schools routinely rescind the academic scholarships of athletes if they are so seriously injured they no longer can play. Overall, 43 percent of college football players never graduate.

Neither schools nor the NCAA do all they could to promote safety. In fact, the NCAA has publicly stated that safety is not its responsibility. In court filings in a wrongful death lawsuit filed in Maryland after a Frostburg State football player died of a head injury sustained during practice, the NCAA stated that it “denies that it has a legal duty to protect student athletes.”

When the College Athletes Players Association wins recognition from the labor relations board, it will represent college players. The USW will not. And the USW will not collect dues money from them.

USW members will know, however, that, like Crystal Eastman, they played a vital role, not in a game, but in a life or death matter — worker safety.

Leo W. Gerard is international president of United Steelworkers.

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