The Un-United State of College Football (Northwestern’s Union Dilemma)

The Psychology of Unity could be quite informative for Northwestern amidst their quandry

College athletics are at a crossroads and these roads are currently converging in Evanston, IL

By David Hauser

What do you do when the young people—schooled by a society hungry to teach unity, teamwork, and togetherness via the lessons from coaches and wins/losses in teams sports, and further empowered by the scholarships and education afforded to them by their play—harness all these teachings and join together to challenge the very system that insisted upon their need to internalize the value of teamwork in the first place?

This is the paradoxical quandary Northwestern University (along with the entire college athletics system) is left to sit with following the landmark decision from the NLRB Chicago regional office suggesting Northwestern football players have the right to unionize as a collective labor group.

Team sports are the training ground for where many of us learn to work in groups and unite toward common goals with one another.  As a psychologist working on both ends of the developmental spectrum, with parents and kids, I see more smiles and faces light up when talking about their Saturday mornings on the field with teammates (or sidelines with fellow parents), than of just about any other experience.  Sports, at their very best, are community.

Nowhere is this more visible than in college sports (especially college football), which inspires a brand of zealotry, passion, and connection among Americans to a degree not seen in any other sports landscape.  Regions develop and exhibit an entire collective identity based upon their football conference–brace yourself for an overdose of cocksureness if you ever dare engage a Southerner by suggesting any degree of ambiguity within the hierarchy of college football conferences (PSST-they may have a few strong opinions about the SEC).

In a historical era where organized religion attendance shrinks and the middle class work day expands (subsequently reducing opportunities for social gathering), more and more of our precious opportunity for communion is housed within stadium parking lot tailgates, high school homecoming pep rallies, and Saturday mornings at the little league field.  Our children are coached and encouraged to form and grow together as one unit, their fans band together around them in support, and within sports a primal need for togetherness is offered to a spiritually hungry group of people finding fewer and fewer outlets and time for union.

Within a sea of contradictions, there are two prominent bits of irony within this developing dilemma; a dilemma that will likely take a decade to sort through.  First is that we teach our kids to form groups via sports, revere them for when they develop a collective mastery upon the field, and then the moment they begin to a form a brand of unity off the field that is inconvenient for the broader system, they are admonished.

Second, Northwestern houses one of the few athletic departments in all of college sports delivering on a greater mission for its student-athletes rather than just banking wins for its boosters.[1]  Peter Ohr, the director of the Chicago regional NLRB, noted in his summary that Northwestern players have a cumulative grade point average of 3.024 and a 97 percent graduation rate, the latter of which is the highest of any top-tier football team in the country.  Led by athletic director Jim Phillips and head football coach Pat Fitzgerald, the NU athletic department is one of the rare bastions in college sports that attempts to provide the character building scaffolding for its athletes that amateurism from yesteryear purported to offer.  In many ways, while this has the feel of “no deed goes unpunished,” this departmental and university community strength might precisely be what makes Northwestern the perfect Petri dish for this ambitious unionizing social experiment.

In 1914, when Frederic Goudy was charged with task of designing a font for the University logo and brand[2] he designed the still currently utilized official typeface in a design he described as straightforward, self-assured, unpretentious, and inherently Midwestern for this is what he felt Northwestern represented.  The main campus sitting on the northern border of Chicago, in the leafy, intellectually curious town of Evanston, Illinois, and upon the shore of Lake Michigan, expresses a concert between the past historical scholarship the university is built upon and the modern cutting edge science it forges via its blend of old-world gothic architecture and the strong, sturdy lines of its modern, steel and glass towers.

The University bounds itself by the motto “Quaecumque Sunt Vera,” whatsoever things are true.  It is a university community that prides itself on remaining strong and free-thinking enough to hold two conflicting truths at the same time.  While this might be the type of academic branding that would melt the heart of a Dead Poet’s Society aficionado, surely University administration have had their moments in the weeks following the Ohr’s decision asking themselves, “really, how serious were these founders in aligning themselves with this dastardly ambitious motto?”  For the Northwestern community is now positioned to bear a pairing of inextricably complicated truths as the result of the NLRB decision.

In one cauldron is the truth that college sports are one of the most profitable industries in America, generating tens of billions of dollars a year, yet the talent and labor that drives this industry is unpaid.  On a separate plane exists the truth that amateurism within collegiate athletics has a rich history in America, dating back over a century, which permits a pureness and sanctity within campus teams that could otherwise be stained and complicated by money and compensation.

Large and entrenched systems tend to be stubborn with change and as a result problems like this tend to get punted down the line to smaller systems to figure out, in this case private universities.  In what would appear to be yet another bit of cruel irony for Northwestern administrators, the university marketing team rolled out 2014 with the “We will…” campaign, brandishing countless purple flags up and down Sheridan Road with a smattering of different leadership taglines to be taken on by the NU community and alumni, most notably “We Will. For Campus and Community.”  True to their brand new purple flags, the university has now been nominated to find a reasonable “middle truth” with the grand daddy of ‘em all when it comes to college athletic dilemmas, as The Atlantic forcefully and eloquently communicated in 2011.  Perhaps this is the optimal moment to cue Ben Stein in his Ferris Buehler’s Day Off performance academically droning, “paging…any leaders…any leaders interested in this one?? Anyone…anyone??”

Northwestern's community is taking on College Football's greatest dilemma

Northwestern’s community is taking on College Football’s most entrenched dilemma

One such leader who has emerged is Northwestern University senior Quarterback Kain Colter.  Colter, with the aid and guidance of former UCLA linebacker and current labor organizer, Ramogi Huma, forged a grassroots effort throughout the Fall 2013 college football season that branded the hashtag #APU, “All Players United.”  This leadership tandem then formed the College Athletics Player Association (CAPA) in early 2014 and are now beginning the steep climb toward challenging the very idea of whether college athletics embody even a semblance of a notion of “amateurism” as it once represented.

In the 1930s, way back when Ivy League colleges had formidable football teams, the fields of organizational and social psychology began to emerge.  Famed organizational psychologist Kurt Lewin in constructing new theory on groups and organization in the workplace posited, “a person who has learned to see how much his own fate depends upon the fate of his entire group will be eager to take over a fair share of responsibility for its welfare.”  Civilizations dating back to the ancients have drawn from the same basic learnings of the power of group for survival—we are all in this together.  Unity, forming groups to protect one’s self and each other, feeds primal emotional and psychological needs and permits greater individual safety.

Colter, no stranger to psychology, as is his major on the Evanston campus, has spent his senior year at Northwestern following quite closely to Dr. Lewin’s playbook.  Colter spent the last two seasons as the Wildcats unequivocal front man—a pure and slashing athlete in the mold of Hines Ward and Antwaan Randel El.  On field he was asked to perform the unusual task in the modern game to embody an adaptability to throw, run, and catch—lining up across the field as quarterback, option pitchman, and wide receiver, giving Big 10 opponents fits with his versatility.

photo 2

It’s been Colter’s versatility off the field that has the sports world eyeing him

It has been Colter’s versatility off the field–stepping into a leadership role for the fate of his group–that has left the sports world’s collective jaw agape and with the potential of radically changing the entire college sports community.

America seems to place a pride in our amateur athletics, perhaps even a defensiveness.  There seems to be a collective belief that as a capitalist society we need to still maintain a few sacred venues that are not driven by the bottom line.  It is as though we must maintain at least some vessels that provide the next generation essential ingredients and values that are of character building substance.  In theory, amateurism in its purest form can develop and internalize the values of camaraderie, community, and togetherness and does not require financial reward as a motivating force.

Colter and CAPA, however, have raised the question as to whether amateurism still exists in a tangible form as it once did way back when the T-formation was a progressive offensive on-field strategy.  Supporting their argument is the data on contemporary TV consumption habits along with the financial ledgers of college athletics departments.

To give an example from the department of “just the tip of the iceberg,” the 2014 BCS Championship game received an astronomical 15.8 Nielsen rating. This type of rating is unheard these days, as media consumption has become more and more niche with the advent of so many new forums for disseminating content.  In this new era of content consumption, an age dominated by social media, on-demand viewing, and DVRs, it is a proverbial cold war arms race for networks and cable companies to hoard “live event” content.  Sports cannot be chopped up into small bits and pieces of on demand content, they are only relevant as live events, aired with commercials (being the financially operative piece of this equation).

Giving credence to this new TV model, the L.A. Dodgers were sold in 2012 for over $2 billion (a valuation never seen before in any American sports team) largely because the new ownership group was well aware that Time Warner Cable was around the corner to provide them $8.25 billion in a new TV deal.

Sporting events are the one holdout to the new age of media and in many ways are driving the entire business model for cable companies.  In other words, college football is like an endlessly tall stack of briefcases piled high and filled with gold bullion.  Yet, the system is asking the student-athlete to hold tight and revel in college football as a sacred and pure amateur format as though it is post-war 1949[3], while universities, coaches, and media moguls operate the system as though it is their manifest destiny to hoard the spoils from this river of pure gold like its 1849.

A recent ad hoc study by Forbes posited that every amateur athlete in the 2014 NCAA Basketball Tournament could earn $340,000 (including the 12th man on the bench) for their participation in March Madness, even if they lost in the first round.  This study was based on a conservative estimate drawing upon the simple math of how typical sports organizations operate revenue sharing between owners and players.  Keep in mind, this is just basketball, an income revenue stream that is scant compared to football.[4]

Perhaps there is something bucolic about having one domain in our culture that is not driven by financial gain, but shouldn’t everyone then have to play by these rules?  If not, why should the figures with the least power in the system work for free, while the stakeholders bathe in money like they summer in Scrooge McDuck’s money vault?

The ubiquitous talking point for the NCAA thus far has been to argue that college athletes are students, not professional athletes.  Additionally, the NCAA, despite any legal jurisdiction to govern college sports, has scrambled to craft policy to maintain this status quo.  At his annual Final Four press conference, NCAA president Mark Emmert asserted that unionizing is “a grossly inappropriate solution” and would “blow up everything about the collegiate model of athletics.”  Of note, Emmert earns $1.7 million annually and profits largely off of the NCAA’s ability to collect a heaping of basketball TV contract money for the tournament with minimal labor costs, as is the current business model of amateur athletics.  As Slate economics writer Jordan Weissman wrote, “the student athlete charade is crumbling,” citing much of the Chicago NLRB’s Director Ohr’s findings as evidence.

Ohr presented the fact that players spend 50 to 60 hours a week on football during training camp before school starts.  Furthermore, he also outlined that they dedicate 40 to 50 hours per week on football during the four-month season.  Ohr’s brief went on to state, “Not only is this more hours than many undisputed full-time employees work at their jobs, it is also many more hours than the players spend on their studies.”  Despite the NCAA’s assertions (and perhaps financial interest), it is hard to argue with the simplicity of this math as Americans with or without a college scholarship can total the hours of their work week.

All this money has a way of disrupting unity.  The advent of ESPN and the mammoth growth cable television has drastically changed the nature of amateur athletics, specifically men’s college football and basketball, in the last several decades leaving only vestiges of true amateurism within the college athletics community.  And as much as Dr. Lewin cites the advantages of unity and grouping for humankind, organized groups can also be threatening, non-inclusive, and form a power that can be quite intimidating.

Despite a seeming economic disparity, players desire for more control in what Colter and others feel is a top-down dictatorship, and a legitimate desire for greater player medical protections after college careers are over, there are plenty of reasons for players, administrators, and fans to be cautious in moving the system in a radically new direction.  Namely: fear of the unknown.  As Northwestern team captain Brandon Vitabile in the Wildcats first 2014 spring practice said simply, “no one knows what will really happen.”

ESPN’s Darren Rovell pointed out one negative consequence that could happen.  If indeed NU players unionize (they vote on April 25) and become recognized as “employees” then this could have major tax implications and leave players footing the IRS bill for their $61,000 a year scholarships (which they are currently exempt from as student-athletes).  ESPN’s senior writer Ivan Maisel added his fear that there are simply so many unknown and unintended consequences that could result from players unionizing that opening this Pandora’s box could leave college football stuck in a cascade of litigiousness for the next decade or longer.

Sports fans also have reason for questioning change as in many ways the fan is living in the golden age of sports consumption.  With nearly a thousand digital cable channels in 2014, a fan can watch football from sun up to well after sun down every fall Saturday.  Recently past movies like Rudy in the scene where Rudy’s dad belts out “we only watch one team in this house” in his southwest suburban Chicago brogue, remind us that not long ago only a handful of the popular teams were broadcast nationally and American home’s had a choice of only 1-2 games a weekend.  Whereas now, if you are a fan of Bowling Green University football, but live in Spokane, Washington you are just a thumb click of the remote control away from watching your team in real time HD.

Further compounding the case for change, is the modern day connotation of the word “union” itself, which comes with its own bit of prejudice these days.  Union has become a buzzword synonymous with halting progress.  In the big backyard of Evanston is Chicago, a place that is notorious for its bruiting powerful unions who have become known for obstructing common sense solutions.

And just across Lake Michigan to the east of Evanston, is another Midwestern[5] tale that leaves folks squeamish to the idea of unions.  Whether it is an economically fair argument to make or not, Michigan is a state in duress and many point to bloated auto worker union negotiated benefits for causing the region wide economic disparity.  Michigan, Wisconsin, and now Illinois, the heart of the Great Lakes region, are very much struggling with the political question of how to grow their stagnated economies while remaining mindful of middle class worker’s rights and wages.

Lastly though, it is education—the mechanism our country consistently points to as the cornerstone of vertical social change for the middle class–that can easily get overlooked in this dilemma. The cost of higher education has skyrocketed over the last two decades compared to the rest of the economy, as the New York times demonstrated in 2012.  The adversaries to change within the college athletics system can fairly point to Kain Colter’s near $250,000 tuition over his four years at Northwestern as the type of educational investment that has empowered him to be posing such institutional challenges in the first place.  With curriculum like labor economics, a liberal arts education permitting him to learn more about community, social action, and group unity, and even the Goldman Sachs internship[6] Colter was afforded last summer, all for free via his academic scholarships, are precisely the type of opportunities that hoards of middle class young adults hunger for (Will Smith’s character in The Pursuit of Happyness comes to mind).

In a globalized world, where western countries’ advantages are shrinking via the flattening of information from the Internet, America’s university system remains one of the country’s most cherished natural resources.  Students from South and East Asia come in droves every fall for the opportunity to study at the world’s finest institutions here in America, creating significantly higher demand, fewer spots for freshman, and the resulting exorbitant tuition from this supply and demand.  With the next decade’s economic bubble already defined by student loan debt, it would hardly be a leap in rational thinking to say that a full ride college scholarship is more valuable than ever before.

The fact is amateur athletics in its most idealistic and pure form have the potential to be the type of community building agent that is integral to our collective development.  For better or for worse though, TV contracts and big money have invaded the college football community and changed the game.  Yes, there are inherent advantages to the current system and not disrupting the homeostasis of the status quo, but that does not fully acknowledge a truth that the primary labor group that puts so many butts in the seats and eyeballs on the TV every Autumn Saturday has little power and insubstantial earnings for their contributions to this system.

The economics of college sports have changed and as a result the system must adapt and change, leaving much uncertainty.  But one incontrovertible truth that cannot be ignored amongst the many truths of this story is another idea that Dr. Kurt Lewin left us with, “We all need each other.  This type of interdependence is the greatest challenge to the maturity of individual and group functioning.”

Change is hard.  Big changes are hard won. As a family therapist I know this well.  No one, however, knows what all of this will bring and that is what is most scary about change. What does remain unchanged though, is the healthy value of asking rigorous questions of our selves, and the communities we participate in, and pushing ourselves toward growth.  If Northwestern is able to stay true to the bounds of its motto, one would hope that they can sit within the discomfort of these conflicting truths long enough and not shy away for it is hard, but instead find a collective truth that can work for the good of all facets of this community, not just the bottom line.

David Hauser, PhD, is a writer at the intersection of psychology, sports, and culture.  His psychotherapy practice at The Family Institute in Evanston/Chicago, IL is focused on working with families, couples, and individuals to better understand and heal relationships.  He also teaches in the Marital and Family Therapy graduate program at Northwestern University.  Follow on twitter/instagram @headiesports


[1] For many a decade you could say they were even a little too efficient with this grand scholarly mission, as decades followed even more decades with very few wins for Wildcat football until Gary Barnett’s triumphant purple revival in 1995

[2] Long forgotten are the days when we turned to our calligraphers to design the marketing plans, dare I ask: how we survived without “official branding consultants” back in the day??

[3] 1949 was the last time Northwestern won the Rose Bowl (or any substantial post season game for that matter)

[4] The University of Kentucky, historically one of the four most important college basketball programs in the country, is dwarfed by the earnings of their SEC basement dwelling football team (by over a 2 to 1 financial ratio)

[5] Cue the Nebraska cinematography, black and white motif

[6] Criticize Colter if you will for being a social agitator, but you cannot charge the man for with harboring any economic/political agenda when in the same 12 month period he is working within the heart of capitalism at Goldman, while also leading a unionizing battle with college athletics


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