When Kain Colter called for Northwestern football players to unionize in early 2014, he cited his experiences in my class, “Field Studies in the Modern Workplace,” as the turning point in his thinking on the status of NCAA “student-athletes” (or “workers,” depending on one’s interpretation). The idea to establish a union was entirely Kain’s own—he had been interested in expanding protections for NCAA players long before he stepped into my classroom—but, as a teacher, I was thrilled that the work we did in my course helped Kain pursue something so meaningful to him.
The course that Kain took with me was part of the Chicago Field Studies program, the largest academic internship program at Northwestern. My class explores the social and political history of work in the United States, beginning with the rise of industrial labor in the late 19th century through to our service-based, white-collar economy of today. In it we read a wide variety of authors ranging from Karl Marx to Milton Friedman, and in Kain’s particular class I combined those readings with field trips to Groupon’s headquarters and to a Chicago steel mill. This was to understand how the social and political values we associate with work have been in constant flux over the past 150 years. My course is not designed to tell students what work “is” or what it “ought to be,” then, but rather to show them that the meaning of work is always shifting, as it both responds to and is shaped by its larger social environment. Students thus have a very real role to play in strengthening or altering the world of work they’re about to enter—or, in Kain’s case, the workplace he felt he was already in. It was this theme that animated many intense discussions among Kain and his classmates, and, yes, I felt a certain amount of (probably unwarranted) pride when Kain described those discussions as a light-bulb moment for him.
So it’s no surprise that I felt a sense of deep disappointment when the NLRB denied the Wildcats players the right to unionize. But I was not upset solely because Kain had been my student, and I was rooting for his personal success (although that was true). Nor was I disappointed because I believed unionization to be the perfect route to reform an NCAA system that appears so dysfunctional in so many ways. As some have noted, it was not obvious that unionization would have provided college football players with ready-made solutions to their many justifiable grievances. More to the point, the NLRB’s hesitation to intervene in a system in which they would only be able to assert jurisdiction over 17 of the 128 teams that comprise Division I FBS college football – given that the remaining 111 teams are run by public institutions – seemed to make some amount of bureaucratic sense. But I have little experience in the finer points of NLRB bureaucracy.
What I do have is experience in the study of politics. And as I thought further about the NLRB ruling, I realized that my disappointment stemmed largely from my concerns as a political scientist interested in expanding opportunities for democratic dialogue in a society in which such opportunities feel increasingly uncommon. Now that the NLRB has blocked the most readily available means by which players could have made their collective voices heard, my fear is that the intense public interest in the politics of college football sparked by this debate will soon die out. This could happen precisely because, in preventing players from collectively and formally challenging the NCAA’s party line, we will once again only hear the NCAA’s party line – and therefore have no debate, discussion, or conversation to speak of. Therefore even if the NLRB ruling was sensible from a bureaucratic perspective – and I leave that an open question – it will likely stifle a much larger and much more important political discussion that has only just begun.
Of course, certain political conversations concerning college football will continue long after the NLRB’s decision fades from the headlines. Years from now, I’m sure we will still be asking whether or not colleges spend too much money on athletics programs, whether or not football is too dangerous a sport for our kids to play, and how and when elite college players can turn professional. These questions are doubtless important, but the debate that Kain started went much deeper and was much more compelling than these more narrowly focused questions.
What made the unionization effort so provocative was that, while its direct target was the NCAA, it forced college football fans to confront a set of questions that go to the heart of many of our most pressing political anxieties. It forced us to reflect, for instance, on the purpose of higher education, at a time when spending on university administration and athletics has far outstripped spending on instruction. It forced us to discuss the meaning of labor exploitation, at a time when workers are more productive than ever but wages remain stagnant. It forced us to contemplate what rights and privileges individuals should retain upon agreeing to perform moneymaking services for someone other than themselves, at a time when unpaid internships are oftentimes a prerequisite for fulltime employment, especially among Millennials. Perhaps most importantly, it forced us to consider whether our own viewing and purchasing habits might come at the expense of someone else, at a time when economic and racial inequality feel like an almost irreparable scourge.
The NLRB’s decision to deny Northwestern players the right to unionize lets college football fans off the hook, because it allows us to temporarily ignore these questions when we turn on the TV each Saturday. The matter is settled – Northwestern football players can’t unionize, and we can go back to our regularly scheduled programming. This is not to say that Kain’s project is dead, or that college football players will never come together as a collective voice, union or not. After the NLRB ruling, however, that seems more a possibility for the distant future.
I nevertheless hope that Kain continues his advocacy on behalf of college athletes, in one or another form. In the past 18 months he has already taught me, his former instructor, a profound lesson: college football is far more complex than Saturday afternoon entertainment. It is also one of the starkest and most accessible embodiments of the most pressing political issues we face as a society today. This does not mean we should refrain from enjoying college football, at least for now. I know that I will again watch the sport this coming season, not least because it teaches me how contemporary political questions are seen, heard, and expressed in everyday life.
But there must come a turning point, a moment of critical ethical reflection similar to the one Kain himself experienced in my class over two years ago. For me, that turning point will be when the NCAA can declare total victory, or, more specifically, when it becomes clear that the NLRB decision has truly silenced the collective voice of college football players. When that time comes, I will be certain of two things. One, that Kain’s voice will be needed more than ever, and, two, that my own tacit support of the NCAA’s party line – in the form of my viewing and consumption habits – will need to be profoundly altered.
Nick Dorzweiler is a Visiting Assistant Professor of political science at Wheaton College (Mass) and an instructor for the Chicago Field Studies program at Northwestern University. His research focuses on the politics of popular culture and the history of American political science.