Mike Wise: Kain Colter’s unionization effort is fueled by compassion, common sense


From left, former Northwestern University football quarterback Kain Colter, Ramogi Huma, founder and President of the National College Players Association and Tim Waters, Political Director of the United Steel Workers, arrive on Capitol Hill on April 2. (Lauren Victoria Burke/Associated Press)
Mike Wise
Columnist April 12

I sat two feet away from the most dangerous man in college sports earlier this month. His name is Kain Colter. He is the former starting quarterback at Northwestern, whose players were recently declared employees of the university by a regional director of the National Labor Relations Board.

Over the course of an hour in a small conference room at the Aspen Institute on Dupont Circle, not once did Colter say, “We gotta get paid,” or, “Coach is making more than $2 mil; can’t they wet my beak a little?”

Mike Wise is a sports columnist for The Washington Post. View Archive

No. An articulate senior, readying for his pro day while lobbying his former teammates to vote for unionization April 25, he never once mentioned money.

Instead, Colter spoke about ensuring that the next generation of athletes diagnosed with concussions and other medical ailments, suffered while giving their bodies to old State U., would be taken care of after they graduate.

He talked about the travesty of programs funneling kids through the system, picking their class and majors for them in some instances, “receiving a degree, but they are not truly receiving an education.”

Colter talked compassion and common sense, actually educating and preparing players for society after sports, which must make him Mark Emmert’s worst nightmare.

See, it’s one thing for the NCAA president to fend off lawsuits from Jeffrey Kessler, the prominent labor lawyer who last month filed an antitrust suit against the NCAA and the five power conferences for “price-fixing.” It’s one thing to sic your lawyers on Ed O’Bannon, the former UCLA all-American who wants the NCAA’s outdated rules forbidding athletes to earn income on their name, likeness or image struck down.

That’s kids essentially asking for cash, their piece of the pie.

But it’s impossible to watch the HBO “Real Sports” episode on the fallacy of NCAA graduation rates last week — the stories of college athletes teaching themselves to read “Green Eggs and Ham” between their junior and senior years, the learning specialist who helped college students with fourth-grade reading levels or below, the football player steered by the school to an African-American studies major solely so he could stay eligible — and not hope that Colter can lobby 39 of 76 Northwestern players into unionizing. At the same time, his former coach, Pat Fitzgerald, is campaigning against him, trying to ensure he remains the school’s highest-paid employee.

At one point during the discussion with Colter and Ramogi Huma, the president of the National College Players Association who is seeking to unionize all college sports, Tom McMillen mentioned a phrase all of us should co-opt: education trauma.

“Health care is important. Medical issues are important,” said McMillen, the former congressman, NBA player and Maryland great. “Brain trauma is [important]. But the education trauma in this country, where kids who are walking out of these schools [and] cannot read, they are getting degrees that are worthless. . . . Kids need a real education that will serve them for the rest of their life.”

We know places like the Carrier Dome in Syracuse, the Big House in Michigan and Comcast Center in College Park are not merely special athletic arenas where lifelong memories are created; they are cash registers for their universities.

And the talented kids and teams who bring fans through the turnstiles don’t just sack, shoot and rebound for boosters; they build wings on business schools and pay for nonrevenue intercollegiate sports.

Forget just the tuition-paying student body; those “student athletes” contribute to university bottom lines like no other scholarship athletes on campus. Football, men’s basketball and women’s basketball at schools like Connecticut, Tennessee and Stanford are used to fill the coffers of the athletic department and beyond.

The NLRB figured Northwestern’s players earn about $60,000 through their athletic scholarship covering tuition, room and board. Given what the program brings in, that’s a low-paid apprenticeship even at Northwestern — for a craft most of them will never use beyond college.

An Ohio State wrestler recently won an NCAA championship. Athletic Director Gene Smith got $18,000 extra in his contract for it. At least John Calipari understands the deal: At $5.4 million a year, he’s less a college basketball coach than CEO and top headhunter for Kentucky basketball, one who brings in good, cheap labor annually and keeps it for barely two semesters.

The hypocrisy is so rampant, it’s a wonder the NCAA hasn’t been rendered obsolete by now.

“You know, they investigate Johnny Manziel, trying to figure out if he received a few bucks for signing autographs,” Huma said. “But in the concussion litigation it was discovered that they wouldn’t even investigate if Johnny Manziel’s coach knowingly put him in a game with a concussion and risked his life. Their legal defense is that the NCAA has no legal duty to protect student athletes.”

That’s why Colter is so important. Here’s hoping he becomes as seminal to college athletics as Curt Flood was to modern day free agency. And if Northwestern unionizes, soon Florida will unionize. And North Carolina. And Memphis. And Stanford.

“They are voting for the future generations, and they are voting for the 9-year-olds right now who dream of playing college sports,” Colter said of his former teammates who could decide the future of college athletics later this month. “It’s truly about, ‘Are you going to set these kids up for success? Are you going to allow them to have a voice and guarantee their basic protections and their basic rights?’ ”

For more by Mike Wise, visit washingtonpost.com/wise.

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