Sizing up Northwestern players' attempt to unionize; more mail

Wednesday January 29th, 2014

Kain Colter and several of his Northwestern teammates filed a petition to unionize on Tuesday morning.
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

I'm only marginally capable of predicting the outcome of football games. Yet over the past few years, I've found myself chiming in on even less predictable matters, such as conference realignment and NCAA enforcement decisions.

And now, the National Labor Relations Board.

What outcome do you expect from Kain Colter and his fellow players' effort to unionize Northwestern's football team? Is there any chance a formal organization recognized by the NCAA will result?
-- Foster, Providence, R.I.

I recommend reading my colleague Zac Ellis' Q&A with our resident sports law expert, Michael McCann, who raises many interesting points about why it would be logistically difficult for athletes to form any sort of national union (mostly because of the differences in various states' laws regarding public school "employees"). Colter, whose unique knack for activism is refreshing, has said the NCAA, not Northwestern, is the players' target. (Colter called the organization "a dictatorship.") But a union negotiates with an employer, not the employer's membership association. Even if Northwestern's football team unionized, there's not much that the school could negotiate with it under an employer-employee dynamic; after all, the school -- like the athletes -- falls under the NCAA's purview.

Realistically, this is likely the beginning of a protracted legal fight, with the school and the NCAA contending that athletes aren't employees. But it's still a potentially revolutionary, if largely symbolic, moment. Given that college athletes enter and leave the system within four to five years, and given that the overwhelming majority of them are far more immersed in such things as Instagram and Call of Duty than in issues of NCAA governance, I've long been skeptical that they would ever mount some sort of organized movement. But then I attended the NCAA convention earlier this month, where Duke lacrosse player Maddie Salamone -- representing the organization's largely ceremonial Student-Athlete Advisory Committee -- got up in front of 800 Division I administrators and lamented, "The student-athlete voice is not as meaningful as we have been led to believe in the past." And now this.

Interestingly, most of the issues Colter's proposed union says it's pressing for -- cost-of-attendance stipends, better medical protection and post-career medical costs, a trust fund to help former players return to finish their degrees -- mirror those the major conferences were already hoping to address with their push for more NCAA legislative power. So it may be that progress happens on those specific issues long before any resolution about unionization. But in the bigger picture, Northwestern's players could still help drive home a larger point, similar to Salamone's, that athletes deserve a greater voice in a system in which they currently have none.

LSU lost 11 underclassmen to the NFL draft last year and six more this year. That is 17 young men who have left college early, and most are unlikely finish their education, even though LSU pushes all athletes to eventually earn a degree. What is the problem? Money! Everybody is making it except the football players, who now have more games in a playoff system that will generate increasingly more revenue. But players don't get any unless they move to the NFL. What is the solution?
-- Alan C. Brown, Baton Rouge, La.

First of all, while I'm sure LSU, like all schools, stresses the importance of a degree, Les Miles and his staff aren't landing all those four- and five-star recruits because they were wowed by the physics department on their official visits. One of the Tigers' primary selling points -- in some cases, the likely No. 1 selling point -- is their track record of producing NFL draft picks. Come to Baton Rouge and you, too, could be the next LaRon Landry or Patrick Petersen or Tyrann Mathieu or Barkevious Mingo. It's tough to be surprised, then, that a significant portion of players moves on to the NFL as soon as possible.

But the rash of underclass defections not only at LSU, but across the country -- there were a record 98 early entries this year -- is definitely a concern, as The MMQB's Greg Bedard wrote last week. That number has skyrocketed from 56 just three years ago, and it's likely that a good number of players will either wind up undrafted and/or unprepared for the next level. But it is the NFL, not the colleges, that created the problem with its last collective bargaining agreement. Only the NFL, not the colleges, can fix it. Kids making the jump to the pros are chasing millions, not thousands. Hence, they're rushing to enter the league and get through their first rookie contracts as quickly as possible. Not even the most pie-in-the-sky pay-for-play scheme would allow college players to make nearly the NFL minimum base salary for rookies ($420,000 in 2014).

ELLIS: Winners, losers from the NFL early entry draft deadline

The ideal solution for both levels would be for the NFL to institute a developmental league similar to the ones in all other major professional sports. That would allow kids whose sole goal is a paycheck to skip the charade of attending college while still honing their skills -- without falling into football purgatory if they go undrafted. But what incentive does the NFL have to create such a system when colleges are already providing a free three-year developmental program?

So, while I understand conflating the two issues, they're not quite the same. If you think college players aren't properly compensated given the billions of dollars their sport is generating, that's fair enough. But that doesn't mean schools should have to bribe players to stay in college for an extended period of time, either. If the NFL doesn't want so many unprepared underclassmen taking up draft slots, perhaps the league should spend a few of its own billions on developing prospects, in turn freeing up more scholarships for kids who genuinely want to go to college.

Stewart, why don't the 14-team leagues (SEC, ACC, and Big Ten) petition the NCAA to allow them to ditch the division format and go with an eight-game conference schedule featuring three permanent opponents and five (out of the remaining 10) rotating foes? The end result is that teams would play all the other teams in their conference, home-and-home, twice every four years. The top two would go to the title game with several objective tiebreakers in place. Isn't this much better than the current set-up, where games like Florida State-Virginia Tech occur twice every 12 years? In the current system, a 5-3 "division champ" can win its league.
-- Brian, Ponte Vedra, Fla.

As a matter of fact, the ACC is already considering that very concept. Commissioner John Swofford told earlier this month that he wants the NCAA to give conferences more "autonomy" (a popular word in NCAA-speak these days) regarding championship game requirements. I'm told the league plans to formally propose legislation to that effect this spring, and if it passes, the conference would indeed consider letting the top two teams play for the title, rather than the division winners. Scheduling is a hot topic in the ACC right now, with Syracuse athletic director Daryl Gross leading the push for a nine-game schedule, due largely to the infrequency of most cross-division matchups. The two issues -- scheduling and a possible title game format change -- are intertwined.

It's interesting, because when conference championship games first began, pitting the two division winners seemed a natural antidote to scheduling imbalances. There were many years during the Big Ten's 11-team era when the two best squads never played. (In 2011, Wisconsin, Michigan State and Ohio State all finished 7-1, but the Spartans and Buckeyes didn't play each other.) Having the two division champs play each other at the end prevents that scenario. However, now that we're at 14 league members instead of 12, teams with eight-game schedules miss so many cross-division opponents that the imbalances remain vast, and schools that aren't permanent foes might as well be in different conferences. It seems inevitable that the ACC and SEC will eventually move to nine-game league slates. (The Big Ten will do so in '16.)

As for ending divisions altogether, be careful what you wish for. For one, the current formats are symmetrical and give the title race a natural, easy-to-understand flow. But secondly, a league could potentially sacrifice a playoff berth by ensuring that one of its two best teams takes an additional loss. Unless, of course, the opposite occurs, and the committee rewards both teams for their enhanced strength of schedule. In that case, a conference should absolutely do it.

I read somewhere that Florida State ended its national title drought at the Rose Bowl. That got me thinking, really, a drought? After all, 1999 wasn't that long ago; most of your Mailbag readers probably remember the 'Noles' last championship. So here's my question: How many years do you think need to pass before a team is officially considered in a drought? And a secondary question: Do drought lengths vary for differing factors, such as years without a win over rival, a conference title, etc.?
-- Scott Sandy, Albany, N.Y.

Good question, though I don't think you can uniformly institute a designation across all teams. The time between titles probably did feel like a drought to Florida State fans. Conversely, Minnesota won its last national championship in 1960, yet I'm guessing Gophers fans don't feel like they're in a "drought." A drought is something one expects to end at some point.

Despite his 57-24 record over the last five years, Bo Pelini has yet to make Nebraska a title-caliber team.
Nati Harnik/AP

I've bugged you about Bo Pelini before, and at the end of the regular season you were of the opinion that Pelini should probably go (after his sideline show against Iowa). But if you look at these numbers, Pelini has placed himself among a small group of some very well-known and successful coaches. I and many other Huskers fans are looking forward to what he does this season and beyond. Do you think AD Shawn Eichorst was wrong in keeping him on board? Or do Pelini's numbers warrant his staying?
-- Michael Schultz, Curtis, Neb.

While I salute the writer for the immense research he undertook, his piece also shows the folly of historical numbers. So Pelini is one of only eight coaches to win nine games in each of his first five seasons? That's admirable, but it omits the fact that Pelini coached 13, 14, 14, 13 and 14 games, respectively, in those years. By comparison, Barry Switzer, who the author cites as another member of that club, did so in two 11- and three 12-game campaigns. Pelini supporters love to bring up the fact that the revered Tom Osborne got off to a similar win-loss start in his eventual 25-year tenure. But again, he coached fewer games. The two starts are not remotely comparable. Osborne's sixth Nebraska team finished No. 8 in the AP Poll, his fifth top-10 finish. Pelini's sixth Cornhuskers squad finished unranked, and his highest finish to date is No. 14.

So, yes, I'm baffled as to how Pelini remains in charge in Lincoln, mostly because I can't believe how far Nebraska's standards have fallen. This is a program that once considered national titles and top-10 rankings as its birthrights. Now, the Cornhuskers are just tickled to beat an 8-4 SEC foe in the Gator Bowl. For this modest level of production, the school is also apparently willing to excuse Pelini's very un-Nebraska-esque tirades. Just think about this for a second: Over the course of last season, Pelini A) was heard on a tape cursing out the entire fan base, and B) all but asked the school to fire him at his postgame press conference following a loss to Iowa. And yet, our undeterred reader is merely "looking forward to what [Pelini] does this season." Nebraska, what the heck happened to you? You're like a former supermodel now slumming it as a B-list actress. You can do better. But hey, I'm not complaining. The longer Pelini stays, the longer @FauxPelini stays relevant.

MANDEL: Grading the coaching hires: Which team came out best?

First of all, I would like to say thanks. My two favorite teams are Notre Dame and Rutgers. Your bowl projections got me to buy tickets to the Pinstripe Bowl before the teams were announced. I was very happy that you were correct. As for my question: How do you see Rutgers and Maryland doing in their first year in the Big Ten? Are they cannon fodder? Or will they be able to go .500 in the league?
-- Edward Moraghan, Clark, N.J.

I'm glad it worked out for you, but in general, tread carefully. As much as I'd hate to get my Pinstripe Bowl projection wrong, my suffering would pale in comparison to someone trying to unload full-priced tickets to the game.

As for your question, I don't think they'll be title contenders, but I don't think they'll automatically be cannon fodder, either. The Big Ten has some good teams at the top, but it's not exactly murderer's row after that. That said, both teams get Wisconsin as a cross-divisional foe next season (congratulations, Badgers) in addition to divisional rivals Ohio State, Michigan State, Michigan and Penn State. Maryland, which went 3-5 in the ACC last year, isn't making as steep a climb as Rutgers, which went 3-5 in the American.

Still, Scarlet Knights coach Kyle Flood made an impressive pickup this week in hiring ex-Terrapins coach Ralph Friedgen as his offensive coordinator. It will be interesting to see what impact he has on a team that has fared pretty well on defense but struggled mightily on offense over the past few years. Good luck, Randy Edsall. You're now set to face both your predecessor (Friedgen) and his onetime designated successor (Penn State's James Franklin).

Stewart, what is the thinking behind playing the national championship game on a Monday every year? Captive audience? To avoid a conflict with the NFL, it seems like Friday night would be a natural choice and would garner greater interest in the game, because fewer people would have to get up for work the next morning. As its stands, it's tough to stay up for the whole thing if you have to wake up at 5:30 a.m.
-- Steve, Roswell, Ga.

Monday night has long been the strong preference of television executives. The game used to move around depending on the date, but it's been set on a Monday night for the past eight years, and it's already scheduled to remain there for the entire 12-year duration of ESPN's new playoff contract. One reason is that football fans are already accustomed to Monday Night Football. Having to work the next morning hasn't hurt ratings for that franchise, which averaged a three-year high of 13.7 million viewers last season. (Auburn-Florida State had 25.6 million.) By contrast, Friday is considered the worst TV night of the week, the one on which networks often bury low-performing programs shortly before cancelling them.

Personally, I think the best night would be Thursday. Not only is it a traditionally huge TV night and a regular college football night, but it would also allow a few days of buildup for the game. As things currently stand, the two days before the national title game are devoted entirely to the NFL playoffs. That will probably be the case even more going forward, given that the championship will often be a week later, after the divisional round. But that would cause its own logistical headaches, most pertinently that players at many schools would likely miss a full week of class. The plan now is for the teams in this year's title game, which will be on Jan. 12, to arrive in Dallas/Arlington on Friday for a Monday game.

What in the world was defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt thinking leaving Florida State for Georgia? Not only do the Seminoles have some dynamite talent returning to Tallahassee next season, but he must not have realized there is no state income tax in Florida.
-- Brian, Wake Forest, N.C.

Hmm. Pruitt wasn't at Florida State long enough to have filed his first Florida tax return, so maybe you're on to something. If he mysteriously resigns from Georgia right around April 15, we'll know why.

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