Northwestern football players 7, NCAA 0

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By Jim Rohrer

I’m no union guy. I think the unions have generally outlived their usefulness in our country, and that’s why only about 11 percent of American workers are union members, compared to nearly one-third in the early ’70s. Today the majority of union members are employees in the public sector, where the relationship between employer and employee has always been more contractual than relational.

When I was a kid, I turned down a high-paying summer job because the company required that I join the union. I was afraid to tell my dad that I had turned down the job in favor of a much lower-paying one. When I finally gained the courage to tell him, he told me he was proud of me. I spent many years trying to run a business in Michigan and experienced first-hand the diminished work ethic that resulted from an environment where relationships between companies and their employees were clouded by unions. Unions make business success more difficult, but a less-than-healthy relationship with employees also reduces the bottom line.

I have seen a number of union organizing efforts over the years, and I can say this: Union drives occur because the company is not seriously considering the point of view and needs of the workers. The drives are usually not about pay but generally center on other issues.

In short, union drives are a cry to be heard. I have never seen a company lose a union drive when the company didn’t deserve the outcome because of its tone-deaf response to employees. Once the union gets in, the company must deal with its people through the filter of the union, and often some pretty inefficient rules are installed.  So the prudent approach is to establish great communications with your people and make sure the relationship is fair and balanced.

So this explains why some very bright football players at Northwestern University have asked to be part of a union representation. Northwestern players generally are student athletes, not just young men waiting to join the NFL. These young men are reacting to the heavy hand of the NCAA. Here are some of the issues:

• “Full scholarships” are often not full in that they provide only room, board and tuition. Could any of us survive on a college campus with no money to get a haircut or take a girl to a movie?

• The athletes are basically not allowed to get a job of any substance. Really, I can’t work hard to improve my situation? 

• There is no guarantee of coverage of the expense of athletics related injuries.

• Scholarships can be canceled without cause, but the athlete can’t transfer without suffering a waiting period at the new university.

• If I get injured playing my sport, I might lose my scholarship.

• Many universities are not really focused on graduation rates.

There are always two sides to all issues, and there are certainly practical limits to any changes that could be made for the players. The point is that this action at Northwestern is a cry for help in what is an unbalanced relationship. Many major universities have figured out how to turn the success of their sports teams into money makers, and good for them. Top coaches make more than the university president or governor of the state, and that’s OK too. 

If you become the best, you get paid as the best. But what about leveling the field for the players? Shouldn’t the National Collegiate Athletic Association look out for the athletes?

I hope that the National Labor Relations Board, whose full board will review this decision, will overturn it. We are probably on a slippery slope if we bring unionization into college sports. At the same time, I hope this causes NCAA officials to take their fingers out of their ears.

Jim Rohrer of Evergreen is a business consultant and author of the bi-books “Improve Your Bottom Line … Develop MVPs Today” and “Never Lose Your Job … Become a More Valuable Player.” Jim’s belief is that common sense is becoming less common. (More about Jim at www.theloyaltypartners.com.)