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Now More Than Ever, College Football Players Need Collective Bargaining

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This column was started last weekend watching the physical toll the college football semifinal games were taking on players. That was before watching Buffalo Bills player Damar Hamlin collapse on the field Monday night.

That put this column into even more perspective. NFL and major-college football players have become our modern-day gladiators. Football is often referred to as a “contact sport.” Basketball is a contact sport. Football is a designed collision sport with big, fast men crashing at full speed on every play.

And it is played for the entertainment of society and for people to wager vast sums of money on its outcomes.

With that as prologue, and with everyone excited about a future 12-team playoff, sooner or later it will be time to have a serious talk. The 12-team College Football Playoff expands the field, creates more TV content and gives more teams chances to make the playoff.

It also means more games, more plays and more violent collisions for a group of players that don’t share in the bounty of corporate sponsorships, bowl bonuses and financial windfalls. The entire financial model is built upon the players’ risk-taking participation in the system.

At the “table” to decide on the 12-team playoff were giddy TV executives, athletic directors, university Presidents and conference commissioners. Certainly a majority of college football fans are excited. So are the countless sports book operations around the country.

You know who wasn’t at the table? Anyone representing a collective bargaining position for the players. The time to give voice to the players has arrived.

For perspective, consider TCU. Because they lost their conference title game on Dec. 3, they would have played a game on Dec. 17, followed by a game Dec. 31 and a game Jan. 7 and then a game on Jan. 16. That win over Michigan would only have marked the halfway point of their journey.

And look at the injuries that piled up for Michigan, Ohio State, TCU and Georgia in those games. The surviving teams would have 2 more games to play. Look at the hit on Ohio State wide receiver Marvin Harrison — a hit that was clearly targeting but one that many media types and fans defended as “part of the game.”

If we won’t protect players, can we really blame them when they opt out? After all, if a player gets hurt it impacts his life, but the coach still gets his six-figure bowl bonus.

At the pro level the players get paid to play the game. The NFL is honest about what they are, and they compensate the biggest risk-takers accordingly. At the college level we’re hypocrites. If you want a 12-team playoff, it’s time to admit that.

In the big picture, major college football has already compromised the universities they are there to serve. Academic units are facing hiring freezes and budgets cut but they see major college sports programs with expanding budgets that are adding employees.

Many will argue that the money for all those things comes from athletics revenues, but for most universities there are subsidies from central operation. Some are overt cash transfers. Other subsidies are less overt, like financial, accounting and fundraising services that are given at what is usually less than the market rate they’d be charged by an outside service provider. Other benefits include the backing of bonds for facility projects issued for better interest rates than an athletic department could get without the full university’s credit rating as a backstop.

As a long-time coach, a university trustee and one of the first NIL consultants in the country, I’ve seen this from all sides and talked with a lot of schools. And once you’ve seen the whole picture, it’s hard not to become radicalized for the cause of the players—the very people the sport is supposed to serve.

So let’s end the hypocrisy and just admit that universities are running a multi-billion dollar sports entertainment business. The expanded playoff makes it even more so. So as we race towards the 12-team playoff, it is time for players to pump the brakes to ask questions and get answers defining their role in college football.

In the NFL the players have collective bargaining, legal representation and a defined set of workplace safety requirements. College players have none of that. There are certainly some rules in place in college, but ultimately with the lack of representation the college player/ coach relationship is tilted in the coach’s favor.

So where are we?

If you want a 12-team playoff and added games, be prepared to see more and more serious injuries. Be prepared to see players opt out. If Ohio State had beaten Georgia, would Marvin Harrison have rushed back from that injury to play nine days later. For him, he risks injury that could have life-long health impacts.

And if we want be honest with ourselves, it’s time to cut the players in on the action financially. And don’t tell us that there is no money to do that. There is plenty of money —it’s just disproportionately tied up in coaching salaries. And we haven’t even talked about the hundreds of millions of dollars in dead money schools are paying to fired coaches.

A correct revenue sharing model will require cash, cash that is transferred to players. As an old-school guy, it is not without some trepidation that I say this, but what’s right is right.

Sadly, it may mean that a head coach will have to make ends meet on a $3.5 million salary. And that coordinator may have to get by on $750,000 instead on $1.5 million. And the size of support and social media staffs may have to be slimmed down.

But we have to face the fact that revenue sharing is coming and what that will mean. And it’s clear that it can’t be financed by jacking up ticket prices on a fan base that will balk at having a gun put to their heads to pay for the excesses.

But turning back to what the 12-team playoff will mean for college football…..

Last week we had Urban Meyer on our “Pigksin Stew Radio Show” on ESPN Radio in Pittsburgh. We asked him about the future playoff. He took a second and then talked about going 14-1 in 2014 to win the National Title.

“The idea that we would have had to play another game or two after the Alabama and Oregon games…” He paused to let that idea sink in. “By that point everyone was already running on fumes.”

By the time Ohio State got to the Big Ten title game that year, they were already playing with their third-string quarterback. Last week, Ohio State was playing with a third- and fourth-string tailback and without their best receiver, who’d been hurt in week one. Michigan was without their starting tailback. Georgia was playing without their best pass rusher. TCU’s tailback got injured. And in the future these teams will all be looking at two more games to win it all.

A few weeks earlier when former Ohio State coach Jim Tressel was on our show we asked him to compare the FCS playoffs which he’d won several times at Youngstown State.

Jim mentioned the comparison many make between the new 12-team playoff to the FCS 16-team playoff model. But he reminded us that those teams only played 11 regular season games back then. And he noted that the size and speed of the collisions were less than the FBS level, with far fewer players with NFL futures to consider.

And now when you reach the major-college playoff level, the size and speed of the players on the field is at the top of the college football pyramid. After a 12-game season a team could be playing a conference title game, and as many as four college football playoff games, all against teams with size and speed.

So if we want an expanded playoff, and we care about the players as we say we do, it is time to put our money where our mouths are. Maybe we need to take away a regular-season game or get NFL timing rules in place for less plays per game. But the players should have a voice before a 12-team playoff is set to go.

It is time to allow players to organize, to bargain collectively and to define once and for all the legal relationship between schools and their players. Anything short of that is a morally bankrupt position in light of what we’re seeing happen to players on our playing fields for the financial benefit of everyone else.