Guest Column: Why ‘Game Changers’ is necessary right now

Kevin Brown and Rick Telander

On April 25 at McGaw Hall at Northwestern, eligible members of the football team cast a historic vote on whether or not to form a union. “Game Changers” members were onsite. While the University waged an aggressive campaign to persuade players to vote against unionization, the more significant battles regarding player freedoms are being fought on several fronts through our nation’s courts.

A lot of questions are being considered that could — and no doubt eventually will — demolish the NCAA’s current economic model. Do college football players qualify as employees (as the regional National Labor Relations Board recently said they do)? Can the NCAA place limits on player compensation via scholarships? Is the NCAA engaged in price fixing? Does the current NCAA economic model restrict market competition? Is there collusion among the power conferences to cap the value of athletic scholarships? These important questions and others are working their way through the courts via Northwestern v. College Athletes Players Association; O’Bannon v. NCAA; Jenkins, Moore, Perry and Tyndall v. NCAA (and the five power conferences) and Alston v. NCAA.

Most legal analysts believe wholesale changes in the structure of the NCAA are on the way. Here’s why: According to a May 2013 USA TODAY report regarding NCAA school finances, the top ten universities reported more than $1.1 billion in total sports-related revenues.

In addition, according to the same USA TODAY report, the top ten highest-paid college coaches together earned over $46 million in salaries in 2013. With such revenue and coaching salaries, the NCAA can no longer call itself the governing body over “amateur’’ collegiate athletics. Colleges and universities with big-time athletic programs are major corporate players earning big-time corporate profits. It is our belief that the players, the workers who actually produce these revenues, do not receive a fair share of the pie. In fact, many do not receive enough money to cover the basic living expenses of a college student.

It is helpful to remember here that it is not the players who have increasingly professionalized the college game but the universities themselves. The schools have done this with the aid and encouragement of boards, boosters, cable outlets, advertisers, bowl organizers and a generally insatiable and passionate viewing public, which demands more games at more times, regardless of the time constraints and educational needs of the “amateur’’ athletes who must perform.

Where do we go from here?

How do we move forward? Can we change, repair and protect the game we love? What can alumni and fans of college sports do to level the playing field? How do we create fairness for revenue-producing scholarship athletes? How do we create a voice for both alumni and the athletes? How do we obtain a seat at the governance table?

“Game Changers” began as a grassroots scholarship football alumni effort to support the free speech rights of fellow Northwestern Wildcat Kain Colter in his historic quest to start a College Athletes Players Association union at Northwestern University. “Game Changers” was and remains neither pro- nor anti-union, but does support the players’ rights to decide if a union was in their best interests. Now that the vote is in (the results of which may not be known for years), and other important issues are being litigated, “Game Changers” now wishes to advance an agenda that gives both players and alumni a voice in the governance process at NU. Our school has a great opportunity to create a new model that could reshape and redefine the power conference landscape for all NCAA scholarship athletes of revenue producing sports. To do so, the University must act now.

Why we can’t wait

  1. Players’ health depends on it: Players deserve health protections. Between August 2013 and December 2013, ten major conferences and FOUR major independents reported only 192 concussions, according to media reports. These numbers are laughably low and a stark contrast to the NCAA’s own Injury Surveillance Program that estimates that some 4000 concussions occur every year at all levels of college football. Protection from and care for head trauma must be at the forefront of all football health plan.
  1. Players around the country are not graduating: Although NU has one of the very best graduation rates (97%) for football players, the vast majority of schools among the five power conferences have poor graduation rates.
  1. The college sports landscape is changing: Today college football is big business by any definition. Even NU with its international reputation for premier academics is building a $220-million dollar athletic facility that will house an indoor practice and competition venue. At the 2013 Gator Bowl pep rally, University President Morton Schapiro announced an unprecedented series of donations totaling $55 million dollars in support of athletics. Television contracts are more lucrative than ever, and hundreds of millions more dollars will be generated as a result of the new college football playoffs.

Why you should join us

“Game Changers” believes that NU athletes participating in revenue producing sports (principally, at this time, the football players) deserve a voice and a seat at the  governance table.

While we applaud proposed ideas of adding athletes and alumni athletes to the NCAA Board, “Game Changers” feels the NCAA and Big Ten proposals are merely weak, late-as-always attempts to stave off public criticism of their handling of the multi-billion dollar industry that revenue-producing college sport has become.

We believe in a fairer, real-time approach to running this massive business masquerading as collegiate “extra-curricular activity.’’ Scholarship athletes in big-money sports should have a proportionate number of seats on any board that supposedly represents their interests so as to ensure their voices and votes are meaningful. That is far from true today. NU football players—who, remember, have legally been judged to be workers by a federal agency—have absolutely no say in the business in which they engage.

“Game Changers” believes that genuine change by the NCAA can only occur by re-doing the current Board structure. That would mean on a 17-member NCAA Board of Directors at least 50 percent of the seats should be occupied by current athletes and alumni athletes from member schools. Only this kind of revision would guarantee genuine change.

The NCAA proposal does affirm the “Game Changers” idea that governance changes at NU would be progressive and ground-breaking. Scholarship athletes from big-money sports and alumni athletes should be represented on the NU Board of Trustees. Their votes could be limited to areas impacted by sports revenue and policy. But, above all, NU should be the trailblazer and national leader in this field, as it is in so many others. To resist ethical and reasonable change, and thereby let other private schools become leaders in this reform when Northwestern could be the tip of the spear, would be a shame.

Please join “Game Changers” and help us work with Northwestern to set the standard for scholarship athletes. Join “Game Changers” to help us ensure that scholarship athletes’ needs are defined and met. Join “Game Changers” as we work with current players and alumni to find ways to provide the best protections for Northwestern athletes.

As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote in his 1963 book “Why We Can’t Wait,” “a social movement that only moves people is merely a revolt. A movement that changes both people and institutions is a revolution.”

Please join “Game Changers” and help us revolutionize the industry of college football in America for the good of all. Keep NU first and best!

Go to and click the join button. And tweet @nugamechangers.