Right now, a Big Ten program that’s been stuck in a coma for over a decade is the pulse of the college football universe. Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter is leading the strongest act of defiance from FBS football players since the freshmen class for the University of Pittsburgh’s national championship football dynasty boycotted the 1939 season after discovering upperclassmen were being paid more.
Their simple demands were for paid room, board, tuition and other expenses that laid the groundwork for student-athlete scholarships. Conversely, that same year Robert Maynard Hutchins was in the process of abolishing the University of Chicago’s powerhouse college football program. The stakes are too high today for a college president and his administration to take that route.
Colter isn’t seeking to emulate the University of Pittsburgh and ask for better pay. The crux of Northwestern’s union demands will be to seek full cost-of-attendance scholarships, be treated as employees under the state’s Worker’s Compensation Act and financial coverage for athletes who get injured and are unable to continue their athletic careers. Student-athletes are tired of being shaken down like Suge Knight on a balcony with Vanilla Ice.
The amateurism issue is personal for Vaccaro, who was a star running back who wound up at Youngstown State, but never played a down because of an injury during his freshman year.
The NCAA puffed their chest out against Colter’s challenge as if he was orphan Oliver Twist asking for more soup.
NCAA chief legal officer Donald Remy dropped the mic immediately after the NLRB ruled in favor of Northwestern.
"This union-backed attempt to turn student-athletes into employees undermines the purpose of college: an education. Student-athletes are not employees, and their participation in college sports is voluntary. We stand for all student-athletes, not just those the unions want to professionalize."
"Many student athletes are provided scholarships and many other benefits for their participation. There is no employment relationship between the NCAA, its affiliated institutions or student-athletes. Student-athletes are not employees within any definition of the National Labor Relations Act or the Fair Labor Standards Act. We are confident the National Labor Relations Board will find in our favor, as there is no right to organize student-athletes."
Despite these inequities, an HBO Sports/Marist College Poll from March discovered that 75 percent of Americans were against the idea of college football players unionizing. Those statistics left Vaccaro apoplectic, but not surprised.
“The biggest misconception the public sees is the sense that we’re not talking about student-athletes getting paid or pay-for-play right now. We’re talking about student-athletes getting compensated for things that they were apart of while they were at these schools.” Vaccaro lectured.
The origins of amateurism are rooted in racial politics pitting green stacks against every other pigment under the sun, but perceptions have been shaped by race.
“I also believe there’s a great racial divide in the looking at the athletes from the white side as opposed to the minority side.”
It took a Caucasian quarterback from wealthy means to become America’s ambassador for the absurdity of amateurism as Miley Cyrus was for twerking. Vaccaro uses the contrasting penalties between Johnny Manziel’s half-game penalty for accepting thousands of dollars during secretive autograph signing sessions and Pryor’s five-game NCAA punishment, plus the accompanying five game NFL suspension after he circumvented his collegiate penalty by going pro for bartering his own Ohio State football merchandise for tattoo parlor discounts.
“The Manziel case in my eyes was the epitome of everything I searched for in my 30 years of advocacy for these kids,” Vaccaro beamed. “First of all, he was an exciting entertainer. Second of all, he was white and he was rich or his family was. It cleared a lot of the presupposed ideas that most of these guys don’t have anything and that they should be grateful.”
Erosion of competitive balance is often a popular counter made by the NCAA to legalizing pay-for-play. While the feasibility of outright paying players is up for debate, there’s never been a reasonable argument offered for why student-athletes can’t profit from their celebrity and abilities during their collegiate careers. The party line is that this potential free market model would give high revenue teams a competitive advantage in recruiting elite student-athletes.
However, the way Vaccaro sees it, revenue college sports is already a free market where they don’t have to give cash. They give amenities instead.
“It is a free market the minute you admit to recruiting. Recruiting is nothing more than a free market. You go to Kentucky because they have a great facility to play in and they’re on television 99 times a year. That’s much more attractive than going to Kentucky State.” Vaccaro told TSL.
Oregon football and its role as Nike’s trust fund child is a prime example of the tax-exempt NCAA’s lucrative, yet one-sided “free market” relationship. In Vaccaro’s words, burgeoning football powerhouses like Oregon and Maryland have created an athletic department through outside sources like Nike and Under Armour.
“You see the culmination of a year and everyone’s engrossed in the Final Four and March Madness, which is a beautiful thing, but what you do not see are the other hundreds of teams, thousands of players that are playing who did not have full gyms, who weren’t on ESPN, NBC, ABC every letter in the alphabet, who did not have charter flights.” Vaccaro added.
Meanwhile, he gets irate about the NCAA sitting rent-free inside their Indianapolis mausoleum while selling athletes images years after they’ve graduated.
Vaccaro’s espouses the evidence that thousands of student-athletes in non-revenue sports got scholarships because of their revenue sport peers.
“The ones that are looking for compensation are the smallest group because they provide an education, if that’s true, of value to other students who don’t generate money,” Vaccaro said. “It’s an illogical theory that the NCAA imposes on the public that these groups of people should be imposed upon by not giving them more money or more access to funding.”
Vaccaro isn’t alone in his battle against the NCAA’s status quo. Historian Taylor Branch has joined Vaccaro as well as outspoken former Tennessee Vols running back Arian Foster, who spoke to TSL recently. If Napier was a foot soldier, Foster’s been elevated to the rank of general because of his candidness in front of cameras.
“The NCAA has been piggybacking off the backs of 18 year olds for years and it’s time for them to understand, it’s up to the public to understand, cause first of all the public is brainwashed into believing that this is ok And this is not ok,” Foster criticized. “You get paid for your labor in the country. This is what democracy is. This is what we are as a country. As a society. You perform a duty and you get paid for your labor. Quit labeling these kids amateurs. How can you be an amateur player with a professional coach?”
Never one to hold his tongue, Foster likens the NCAA’s student-athlete structure to indentured servitude.
The conclusion to the impending collision between the stubborn NCAA and the intrepid waves of student-athletes washing up on their campus shores has yet to be drawn up and Foster has his bayonet sharpened.
“You don’t even own your name in the NCAA, so go make your money. Cause I don’t care what they tell you, it’s about money. This is a business,” Foster said. “And for some reason, people have this skewed idea of athletes and we’re just supposed to love the sport and play for the love. And my GM isn’t GM'in for the love. It’s about money. It’s about business. I love playing my sport. Absolutely, 100%. But I have to keep my lights on. You gotta keep the lights on, gotta keep the kids fed.”
Vaccaro foresees a future in which student-athletes will eventually profit from their free market value and gain the rights to sign endorsement deals.
“You’re not separating church and state, but you are saying church and state can live together. What is that? The athlete and the NCAA,” Vaccaro said. “Allow them to sign the got damn endorsement deals. Why should they be forced to wear shoes, drink a drink or wear a hat that somebody else is paying someone else money for?”
“When all the public wants to see is the kids wearing those shoes. They don’t want to see god damn Mark Emmert or the coaches, they wanna see the athletes!” Vaccaro bellowed.
Vaccaro is correct about the athletes being the greatest asset on the playing field, but he may be underestimating his own role. Student-athletes have begun standing up for themselves, but Vaccaro will remain at the forefront like a head coach barking instruction during timeout huddles combatting what he calls the NCAA’s “moral dementia”.
Vaccaro won’t be silenced.
"I'm not afraid or ashamed or, I'm not ashamed! Shit! I'm proud I can say these things because I know of what I speak." Vaccaro pointed out. "I've dealt with these people for 50 years. I've gone through every one [NCAA President] since Walter Byers through present day. I don't think they're bad human beings and I've never called anyone that. I don't care what political party they belong to, what religion they adhere to. All I care about is they're dealing with individuals they have no right taking over. That's the athletes."