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College Athlete Unionization is Back on the Table

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A Twitter rant directed at University of Illinois coach Tim Beckman may well put the radioactive subject of college unionization right back into the limelight.

Tim Beckman, above with Chris Petersen, is at the center of accusations that may lead to a new discussion around unionization.
Tim Beckman, above with Chris Petersen, is at the center of accusations that may lead to a new discussion around unionization.
Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

I suppose it was naive of me to ever presume that the subject of college unionization had been put to bed.  You will recall the situation from January of 2014 when news broke that the Northwestern Football team, led by a petition filed by QB Kain Colter, was going to attempt to unionize.

That news led to a tsunami of subsequent news events, editorials in popular media and quite literally more than a million hits on social media.  Everybody had an opinion.  Everybody had a beef.  Everybody wanted to see something get done, whether it was to implement full-scale unionization or to dismiss the entire concept with prejudice.

Like most social issues that strike a chord in the general public, the first time it gets raised is rarely the incident that drives the development of some sort of permanent solution.  The Colter petition did have an important impact on the discussion of how college athletics needed to evolve in this era of crazy television money and "stadiums on steroids".  The subjects of medical care, rights of athletes as students and fair full cost of attendance were all brought into the sunshine and debated with honest intentions.

That was good, even if the notion of outright unionization seemed to die on the vine.

Fast forward a year and here we are, ready for Round 2 of this debate to commence.  The triggering incident in this case also happens to come out of the great state of Illinois.  Former Illini Lineman Simon Cvijanovic took to Twitter over the past weekend and went on an epic tirade against his former football team and its head coach, Tim Beckman.  Cvijanovic, who played at Husky Stadium last season in UW's 44-19 victory, levies significant accusations against Beckman related to how specific injuries he suffered were mismanaged, how abusive team discipline was, and how academics were disregarded in Beckman's program.  Cvijanovic, who elaborated on these accusations in an interview with Shannon Ryan of the Chicago Tribune, also throws out several times the idea that unionization would have protected him and other players from some of these abuses and that the time has come for this reform.

Before I go any further, I'd like to link to the excellent summary piece provided by our sister site at Inside NU covering the whole blow by blow affair.  If you'd like to really engage in this debate, I encourage you to read it so that you can have all the facts available to you.  Here are just a sampling of the tweets to help set the context:

There is an important subtext to this story involving Cvijanovic's brother, a Type 1 Diabetic, and how he has been allegedly treated by Beckman and the Illini staff.  For purposes of saving space, I won't go into that.  Needless to say, this family has an axe to grind.  And, to be clear, this is not an editorial designed to give an opinion as to whether or not these are legitimate accusations.  I don't know anything about Illinois football or the Cvijanovic family.  The only thing I know for certain is that Mr. Cvijanovic certainly feels like he's been significantly wronged and that he is fiercely advocating for a change that he feels will make the world better for college athletes such as himself.  I do not begrudge him that in any way.

The question on the table now is in what direction the debate will now proceed.  Certainly, there will be an investigation with or without the presence of a union to press the issue.  The athletic department at the University of Illinois simply can't let these kinds of accusations go without an honest assessment taking place.  The NCAA has, sadly, become accustomed to these types of situations surfacing across their various sports and it has become clear that school administrations and society at large have a low tolerance for million dollar coaches abusing and exploiting college athletes of any sort - scholarship or not.

It is important for everybody to allow this process to work and for Tim Beckman's side of the story - whatever that may be - to come out and be considered with an objective eye.

Regardless, the question of unionization will come back on the table.  It simply must.  The accusations being levied here have nothing to do with paying athletes.  These accusations are about protecting those student athletes.  Currently, student athletes are primarily protected by the good will coming from their university and delivered in the very loosely defined terms of their scholarship.  To some degree, athletic conferences and the NCAA supplement those standards, but that tends to be limited ensuring a level playing field across covered institutions.

Whether or not the provisions of protection granted by schools, conferences and the NCAA - whether they be formal or informally defined - rises to a level that we in society would find generally acceptable is a question that remains to be answered.  I have to admit that as a parent to daughters who both may one day find themselves in this situation, I'm not sure that I can honestly say that those protections are adequately defined or implemented.

Should we agree that protections do need to be enhanced - and, again, we are talking about medical care, academic protections and freedom from abuse and bullying - then the next logical question is whether or not unionization is the right vehicle to deliver those protections.  That is a serious question in its own right and warrants the same kind of assessment of all options that major issues like Title IX, 85-man scholarship limits and College Football Playoffs all received.

In truth, I really don't know the answers here.  It's a debate that is destined to resurface in light of these recent developments and, I think, appropriately so.  We can all agree that it isn't the most fun thing to have to deal with - particularly on a fan blog like this one.  Still, it's important and it affects each of us in one way or another.  So, bring it on.  Let's hash it out with a depth of thought and a consideration for other's points of views.

#WOOF