TIME Football

My Dream After Fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan: To Play College Football

Rise: A Soldier, a Dream, and a Promise Kept
Rise: A Soldier, a Dream, and a Promise Kept Courtesy Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Daniel Rodriguez is a decorated war hero, a Division I football player for Clemson University, and the author of the forthcoming memoir, RISE: A Soldier, a Dream, and a Promise Kept.

I know the difference between Death Valley and the Valley of Death. I’ve seen both. Football is not war. Football is a game. But right now, for the moment, it’s enough

October 20, 2012
Clemson, South Carolina

The noise is almost deafening.

No question about it — when you put 80,000 people in one place and unite them in purpose, they can shake a building (and the surrounding countryside) to its core. As I stand here now, at the top of Memorial Stadium, preparing to lead the Clemson football team on the long downhill run to Frank Howard Field — there’s a reason they call it Death Valley — I can feel the earth trembling beneath my feet.

I am at the front of the line, an unusual and somewhat disori- enting position for a first-year walk-on. But then, this is no ordi- nary day, and I suppose I am no ordinary college football player. For starters, I’m twenty-four years old, which makes me the old- est guy on the team, despite the fact that I’m only a freshman. I’ve spent most of the past six years in the military, serving tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan. Along the way I had the misfortune of being involved in the infamous Battle of Kamdesh, one of the bloodiest encounters in the Afghanistan conflict. I lost friends that day, and no amount of hardware (I received the Purple Heart and Bronze Star with Valor in the aftermath) can ever change that fact or make the memory any less painful. But I guess this is one of the ways I deal with it: by fulfilling a promise I made to a friend who died that day, on October 3, 2009.

“Someday, when I get out of this sh*thole, I’m going to play college football,” I had said, although I didn’t really know how I was going to make it happen.

And now here I am, dressed in orange, padded up, at five-foot- eight, 175 pounds, the smallest guy on the Clemson football team. But no matter —ain’t the size of the dog in the fight, as they say. I’d be just as happy at the back of the pack, but today is unique. Not only are we playing Atlantic Coast Conference rival Virginia Tech, but it’s also Military Appreciation Day. As I wave the American flag at the top of the stadium steps, generic cheering and shout- ing give way to something more organized, something more pro- found:

“U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A!”

I understand the reality of being a soldier in the modern army. I know that most people are deeply disconnected from the violent and exhausting work of the American military half a world away. I know that the patriotic chanting is a gesture soon forgotten. But you know what? That’s okay. It feels good now, in this place and this time, and I’m honored to be a part of it. There’s one other thing: it’s my father’s birthday. Ray Rodriguez, who was not just my dad but also my best friend, passed away shortly after I gradu- ated from high school. I was still just a kid when he died, and not a particularly ambitious or focused one at that. I can’t help but wonder how he’d feel if he were here now to share this day with me and to see the man that I’ve become. I like to think that he’d be proud.

Suddenly we’re moving, careening downhill, nearly a hundred strong, rolling into the stadium, into Death Valley. It’s a nickname, of course, and nothing more, signifying the supposed fate of Clemson opponents. I know the difference between Death Valley and the Valley of Death. I’ve seen both. Football is not war. Football is a game. But right now, for the moment, it’s enough. I’m lucky to be here. I’m lucky to be alive. I was given a second chance, and I plan to make the most of it.

Excerpted from RISE: A Soldier, a Dream, and a Promise Kept, by Daniel Rodriguez with Joe Layden, to be published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt on October 7, 2014. Copyright © 2014 by Daniel Rodriguez and Joe Layden. Used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.

Rodriguez is a decorated war hero and a Division I football player for Clemson University. He served tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, rising through the ranks to sergeant. In 2009 he fought in the Battle of Kamdesh and earned a Purple Heart and the Bronze Star Medal with Valor.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

MONEY Sports

Why Students Aren’t Going to College Football Games

Bleachers at Michigan Stadium.
Bleachers at Michigan Stadium. Simon Bruty—Sports Illustrated/Getty Images

With college football ticket prices soaring and expanded conferences leading to less exciting matchups, fans—students in particular—are more likely to watch games from home.

There’s no denying that college football is a hugely successful business enterprise, arguably the second-biggest, most popular sport in the U.S. right now (after pro football in the NFL). But there’s one glaring crack in the armor that college football conferences and storied college programs have been struggling with for years: Fewer and fewer fans are actually buying tickets and attending games in person.

The problem is particularly evident among students, who aren’t buying tickets like generations past. For the upcoming season, the University of Michigan, the winner of no fewer than 11 national championships and 42 conference crowns, projects that student attendance will hit around 13,000—a shocking 40% less than the figure hit last year (roughly 19,000).

It’s not just a problem in Ann Arbor. The Wall Street Journal reported that student attendance fell 7.1% from 2009 to 2013, and that it has even fallen over the past few years at games hosted by perennial powerhouses such as Ohio State, Michigan State, Florida State, LSU, and the University of Florida. A year ago, observers took note that home attendance was down for the majority of teams in the SEC, even though the conference has thoroughly dominated college football in recent years.

The two most frequently cited reasons for the ticket slump are simply: 1) higher ticket prices; and 2) less interesting games. A student season ticket package at Michigan, for instance, now costs $295, up from $205 not long ago. There are only six homes games in the package, mind you, so that breaks down to just under $50 per game. “There are students who are being priced out,” a Michigan business student named Michael Proppe explained to the WSJ. “People are looking to trim costs, and for a lot of folks, football is an easy thing to cut. It’s not essential to going to college.”

What makes the decision easier for students at Michigan and other schools is the expectation that the games they’re missing aren’t going to be that good. The shifting and expansion of college football conferences has led to incredibly lucrative TV contracts for the programs involved, but it has also meant that traditional rivals don’t play every year like they used to. Michigan’s biggest rivals are Michigan State and Ohio State, but for the first time in nearly 40 years, the Wolverines won’t be hosting either team this season. Instead, Michigan will welcome the likes of Appalachian State and Miami (Ohio), opponents that many fans apparently think aren’t worth paying $50 to see.

As ticket prices have soared, and the quality of the product has declined, it has become more of a no-brainer for fans—poor students in particular—to stay home and watch the game on the couch. After all, this option has gotten cheaper and more entertaining and convenient in recent years, thanks to the declining prices of big-screen TVs and the advent of DVRs, multi-angle replays, and other innovations. Sure, the exciting roar of the crowd may not be there if you watch the game at home, or the frat house, or heck, in the parking lot while tailgating outside the stadium. But the way trends are going in terms of shrinking attendance at games, the crowd might not be all that loud inside the stadium either.

MONEY Sports

How College Football Sacked the NBA and MLB

Houston football fans singing the National Anthem
Dave Einsel—AP

With the college football season upon us, it's time to take stock of just how valuable this "amateur" sport has become.

Want to know how rabid fans have become for college football?

Well, the season kicks off in earnest tonight when the South Carolina Gamecocks (ranked 9th in the country) take on the Texas A&M Aggies (ranked 21st).

The game will be played in Columbia, South Carolina, in front of 80,000 screaming fans — an amazing feat given that Columbia has a population of just 133,000. The Aggies, for their part, play in Kyle Field, which in 2015 will be able to hold almost every single College Station, Texas, resident.

Last year, the Gamecocks opened with a game against the University of North Carolina, and 3.7 million people across the country tuned in. That may not sound that impressive, but consider that Columbia is just the 77th largest television market in the U.S., behind cities like Omaha and Toledo.

There’s no doubt about it. Americans love football.

More people watched the NFL Sunday Night pregame show last year than watched the Boston Red Sox win the World Series. In fact, professional football games comprised all but four of the 50 most-watched sporting events of 2013. The National Football League is the most popular spectator sport in America.

What’s No. 2? Not the NBA, not Major League Baseball—but college football. And with college football introducing a new-fangled playoff system this year, expect America’s infatuation to only grow.

Here are a few measures of its influence.

Ratings

The 2013 NBA finals featured perhaps the most popular athlete in the world, Lebron James, as his super team battled against the San Antonio Spurs for seven unforgettable games. An average of almost 18 million viewers saw James secure his second NBA title. A few months later, 15 million baseball fans saw the Red Sox win their third championship since 2004.

How many viewers watched Florida State beat Auburn in the 2014 BCS title game? Twenty-six million, per Nielsen ratings.

This isn’t a one-off event. On average, 2.6 million people watched NCAA regular season football games last year, according to Nielsen. Take Saturday, October 5, 2013. Both the University of Georgia and Tennessee were enduring less than stellar seasons. Nevertheless, 5.6 million people tuned in to see the two Southeastern Conference schools play each another on CBS.

Viewer demand is only likely to increase. Starting this year, college football will institute a four-team playoff to decide the national champion, and rejiggered rules allow the biggest football programs more control over their finances. According to USA Today, these developments will lead to the biggest schools earning 71.5% of the $470 million annual television revenue for the playoff.

Baseball and basketball simply don’t attract as many eyeballs. About 700,000 people watched an MLB regular season game on television in 2013, and 1.4 million watched a non-playoff NBA game in the 2012-13 season. (All are based on nationally televised games.)

The total attendance for 835 NCAA Division I football games was a little more than 38 million, with a per-game attendance of 46,000. The NBA, which has almost 400 more total games in its season, drew 21 million people, while the MLB attracted 30,500 per game. (Major League Baseball has almost three times as many games and brought in a total of 74 million fans.)

Reach

Part of college football’s popularity might be its reach. While the NBA and MLB have 30 teams collected mostly around large metropolitan areas, college football programs exist where there are colleges – which is everywhere. Consider that New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and San Francisco have 15 professional baseball and basketball teams. That’s a quarter of all the teams in only four cities.

Now look at NCAA football. The top five teams play in Tallahassee, Tuscaloosa, Eugene, Norman, and Columbus. While it’s true that a number of the West Coast schools play in big cities (UCLA, Stanford, and the University of Washington), most of the big-time schools are the only game in town. If you live in Boise, Idaho, do you really care about anything else the way you care about Boise State Broncos football?

Riches

There is something a bit unsettling about college football’s popularity, and corresponding affluence. A college football coach is the highest paid public employee in 27 states – including South Carolina and Texas. Alabama’s Nick Saban made more than $5.5 million last year, despite the fact that his and every other team’s players weren’t paid anything. (Many were given athletic scholarships, but those can be taken away if a “student-athlete” becomes injured. Just for some perspective: the University of Texas’s football program earned $82 million in profit last year.)

Plus, football is a dangerous game, and it’s an open question whether an institution of higher learning should even be in the business of promoting a sport that causes severe head trauma. (Google: Owen Thomas.)

College football, though, is inexorably linked to American history. The first intercollegiate game took place four years after the end of the Civil War, and the college game itself was saved by then President Teddy Roosevelt.

Otherwise normal, hard-working Americans revert to 20-year-old fanatics every fall Saturday afternoon and cheer on their alma maters. Tonight’s game in Columbia is just another page in the never-ending story of America’s love with her second-favorite sport.

TIME

USC Football Player Suspended Indefinitely for Fake Drowning Story

Southern California cornerback Josh Shaw lines up against California defensive back Isaac Lapite during the first quarter of a NCAA college football game in Berkeley, Calif.
Southern California cornerback Josh Shaw lines up against California defensive back Isaac Lapite during the first quarter of a NCAA college football game in Berkeley, Calif. Eric Risberg—AP

Shaw has been suspended "indefinitely" from the Trojan athletic program

University of Southern California’s cornerback Josh Shaw said Wednesday he lied when he told his coaches he sprained his ankles while attempting to save his drowning nephew. In response, the USC Trojans suspended Shaw indefinitely from the athletic program as a result of what he referred to as a “complete fabrication.”

“We are extremely disappointed in Josh,” USC coach Steve Sarkisian said in a statement. “He let us all down. As I have said, nothing in his background led us to doubt him when he told us of his injuries, nor did anything after our initial vetting of his story.”

USA Today reports that members of the school’s athletic department doubted Shaw’s story from the beginning. The investigation into Shaw’s injury had been ongoing since Monday when the school posted the initial story in which Shaw claimed to have sprained his ankles after jumping onto concrete from an apartment balcony in an attempt to save his drowning 7-year-old nephew.

In a statement issued through his lawyer, according to USCTrojans.com, Shaw apologized saying, “I made up a story about this fall that was untrue. I was wrong to not tell the truth. I apologize to USC for this action on my part.” The statement did not include any information about the real reason behind Shaw’s injuries.

Shaw is a fifth year senior at USC where he was a team captain on the football team.

TIME College football

Oklahoma University Suspends Running Back Over Misdemeanor Charge

Oklahoma Mixon Football
Oklahoma freshman running back Joe Mixon leaves Cleveland County Courthouse in Norman, Okla., after being arraigned on misdemeanor assault charges Monday, Aug. 18, 2014. Jay Chilton—AP

Freshman Joe Mixon allegedly punched a woman in the face

The Oklahoma University football program has suspended running back Joe Mixon for the entire season after he pleaded not guilty to a misdemeanor assault charge, the team announced on Twitter Monday. “He will be excluded from all team activities, including being removed from the team roster,” the statement read.

The freshman was charged on Friday with misdemeanor assault for allegedly punching a woman in the face. Mixon, a top recruit, could receive up to a year in prison if convicted.

A fellow Oklahoma student, 20-year-old Amelia Rae, told police that Mixon knocked her unconscious and broke four bones in her face, according to the incident report. Mixon’s lawyer maintains he was protecting himself from “a very intoxicated and troubled young woman,” according to ESPN.

The school said that under appropriate conditions, Mixon will be able to continue as a student, and could still be eligible for financial aid.

TIME College football

Notre Dame Benches 4 Football Players Over Cheating Charges

The players are suspected of submitting papers that others had written for them

Officials at the University of Notre Dame are investigating four members of the school’s football team for suspected academic dishonesty, the school announced Friday. The players, who helped the team win the 2012 Bowl Championship Series, will not be allowed to attend practice or play in games for an unspecified period of time.

“Young people sometimes make bad decisions, but our job is to hold them accountable,” said Rev. John I. Jenkins, the school’s president, in press conference.

Evidence of the cheating, which consisted of submitting classwork that had been written by others, emerged on July 29, and the school’s general counsel initiated an investigation, according to a press release.

“We’re going to have this investigation go wherever it leads us, and we’re going to be thorough,” said Jack Swarbrick, director of athletics at Notre Dame.

Jenkins said the investigation is still ongoing and that the school would initiate a committee to consider the allegations in accordance with the school’s honor code. There is no evidence that any of the coaching staff or academic personnel knew about the alleged misconduct, he said.

Notre Dame’s football team has fared well in recent years. The four players in question played on the 2012 team that made it to the BCS national championship. Jenkins said that the NCAA has been notified of the investigation, and said that it is possible that the school will vacate its wins during past competition as the players would have been ineligible under NCAA rules due to their academic dishonesty.

Notre Dame’s opening home game against Rice is scheduled for August 30th.

TIME College Sports

Some College Athletes Will Now Get Paid—a Little

Cabrinni Goncalvesof the Maine Black Bears tackles Trevor Siemianof the Northwestern Wildcats during their college football game at Ryan Field on September 21, 2013 in Evanston, Illinois.
Cabrinni Goncalvesof the Maine Black Bears tackles Trevor Siemianof the Northwestern Wildcats during their college football game at Ryan Field on September 21, 2013 in Evanston, Illinois. John Gress—Getty Images

Power conferences gain autonomy to make own rules, which will include cash stipends for athletes

Some colleges are going to pay athletes.

The NCAA voted Thursday to allow 65 teams from the so-called Big 5 power conferences—the ACC, Big 10, Big 12, Pac 12, and SEC, plus Notre Dame, a football independent that is now a member of the ACC in other sports—to make their own rules. These conferences will to offer their athletes not only a scholarship, but the full cost of attendance: money for extras like food, clothing, the occasional trip to the movie theater and more. Depending on the school, this could amount to athletes receiving an additional $2,000 to $5,000. With further autonomy, these schools will also ease restrictions on contact between athletes and agents, and be able to do things like pay for post-season travel for the families of athletes and invest more money in athletic health care coverage.

The move in many ways reflects an economic reality. These conferences drive the most interest in college sports: Between 2003 and 2012, for example, annual football revenues for teams now in SEC jumped 91%, to $759.9 million. The college football playoff, which starts this season, and the continuing expansion of lucrative conference television networks—the SEC Network debuts on August 14—will continue to pump more riches into college sports. NCAA leaders are recognizing that in this environment, the long-criticized inequity of college sports—that none of this additional money flows into the pockets of the talent actually doing the core work, the athletes—is no longer tenable.

“It’s important for the student-athletes and their welfare,” Ken Starr, president and chancellor of Baylor University, said of the vote. “There are things that we would like to do, and we need to be empowered to do those things.”

While the vote is historic in nature, college sports critics contend it doesn’t go far enough.

“I hope it’s the first step towards players being able to negotiate their own working conditions,” said Richard Southhall, director of the College Sport Research Institute at the University of South Carolina. “The crumbs are more nutritious than they used to be, but they’re still crumbs.”

The move falls short of giving athletes in the high-revenue sports full salaries, or allowing them to capture their true worth on the open market. To college leaders, such reform would dredge up the dreaded E-word. Athletes would serve as employees, which administrators have determined is incompatible with education.

“If you’re an athlete, going from $0 to $3,500, mathematically, is infinitely better,” said Andy Schwarz, an economist who has done work on behalf of the plaintiffs in the Ed O’Bannon anti-trust case, in which the former UCLA hoops star and other athletes are challenging the rights of schools to profit off their name, image and likeness without compensating them. “But qualitatively, it still misses the point entirely.”

A decision in the O’Bannon case, which is pending, and a successful effort by Northwestern football players to form a union could accelerate the destruction of the NCAA’s so-called “amateurism” model. But for other critics of the NCAA’s vote, that would be a disaster. To them, autonomy for Big 5 conferences, and cost of attendance subsidies, already goes too far. It will destroy competitive balance in college sports, as the extra benefits offered by the big schools will allow them to attract even more top talent, leaving schools outside these conferences helpless. “The NCAA cannot fall prey to phony arguments about student welfare when the real goal of some of these so-called reformers is create a plutocracy,” Boise State president Bob Kustra wrote in statement in May, “that serves no useful purpose in American higher education.”

Stipends for athletes, however, won’t destroy college sports. Competitive balance doesn’t really exist in college sports now, as almost all of the top high school players are already going to the top schools. In a 2011 paper entitled “Excuses, Not Reasons: 13 Myths About (Not) Paying College Athletes,” Schwarz studied 10 years worth of recruiting data and found that 99% of the high school football players listed as Top 100 prospects on Rivals.com went to power conference schools and Notre Dame. And despite this trend, football teams like Northern Illinois, and basketball teams like Wichita St., have cracked the top of the national rankings, because, as West Virginia athletic director Oliver Luck puts it, “recruiting is an art, not a science.” Plenty of talented players are overlooked by big schools, and will continue to be overlooked by big schools, even though players at top conferences are receiving a few thousands dollars extra in stipends. At lower schools, plenty of players blossom into pros, and will continue to blossom into pros, even though their Big 5 rivals are receiving some cash.

Sure, a few players on the margin may choose to possibly sit on the bench at a big conference school, rather than star at the lower levels, because of the extra benefits. But all talent won’t flow upwards, because of simple supply and demand. Schools offer a finite amount of athletic scholarships; every player who wants to play basketball at Duke can’t go to Duke. So they’ll go to, say, Lehigh. And what can happen? We’ll still have charming upsets. If Lehigh could knock off the hyped stars from Duke during the 2011 NCAA tournament, they could still beat them tomorrow, even if the Duke players receive more money.

“Having a little bit of cash doesn’t spoil the entire amateur status,” Luck said.

TIME Sports

College Woos Star High School Quarterback By Writing A Letter To His Cat

Meow.

College sports are serious business. That’s why the genius football recruiters over at Rice University successfully wooed a star high school quarterback, J.T. Granato, by writing a recruiting letter to his cat.

The note—addressed to “Kitty Granato”—read: “Please help us to get J.T. to choose Rice,” adding, “[p]aw me in case you have any questions.”

TIME College football

A Coach Is Cleared of Child-Porn Charges, but His Ordeal Drags On

Minnesota State–Mankato football coach Todd Hoffner mostly observed practice and did not take an active role, April 18, 2014, in Mankato, MN.
Minnesota State–Mankato football coach Todd Hoffner mostly observed practice and did not take an active role, April 18, 2014, in Mankato, MN. David Joles—Zumapress

In 2012, Minnesota State-Mankato's head football coach Todd Hoffner was charged with two felonies for photos of his own kids after a bubble bath. Now, with his name cleared and his job back, things still aren't "normal"

Todd Hoffner, the head football coach at Minnesota State-Mankato, a Division II school, can still recall that night he spent in jail. It was August 2012, and he had been arrested and charged with two felonies: using minors in a sexual performance or pornographic work, and possession of child pornography. That June, Jerry Sandusky had been found guilty of sexually abusing young boys while an assistant coach at Penn State. Colleges were on red alert, on the lookout for any sort of inappropriate contact between coaches and children.

But Hoffner knew his university—which had placed him on leave after a technician found videos of naked or partially clothed children on his Blackberry—had overreacted. And that the authorities had arrested him under false pretenses. “There was shock, fear, and I gradually worked myself towards resolve,” Hoffner says. “I set two goals for myself as I sat in that jail cell. I wanted to be exonerated from the criminal charges, and vindicated by my university.

“Now, it’s a clean sweep,” he adds. “Mission accomplished.”

Todd Hoffner is not a child molester. The videos on his phone were those of his own children. In dismissing the charges against him three months later, a judge labeled the videos “playful and silly.” They were taken after his kids, then ages 9, 8, and 5, had taken a bubble bath. And for the first time in two seasons, Todd Hoffner will coach the Minnesota State-Mankato football team this fall.

But Hoffner’s road to reclaiming his job, and reputation, was a borderline nightmare. And where Hoffner’s career—and the Minnesota State-Mankato football team—goes now will depend on how Hoffner, the school’s leadership and the players on the team react and adapt to circumstances that, even in the already weird world of college sports, are almost unprecedented in their awkwardness.

Because without Hoffner on the sidelines, Minnesota State-Mankato went 24-2 the last two years under interim coach Aaron Keen, and made two appearances in the Division II playoffs. Hoffner may be vindicated. But that doesn’t mean he’ll be embraced. “No doubt, there are a lot of emotions on both sides,” says Minnesota State-Mankato athletic director Kevin Buisman, who hired Hoffner in 2008. “I don’t think anyone knows what’s normal now. And it’s going to be a little while until we can define normal, or experience normal.”

Although the child pornography charges were dismissed, Minnesota State-Mankato suspended Hoffner for 20 days, then reassigned him to an administrative role. In May, Hoffner was fired for undisclosed reasons. The Mankato Free-Prees revealed that, according to an arbitrator’s report, the school accused Hoffner of viewing pornography on a work-issued computer and also allowed his wife to use the computer. Hoffner denied viewing pornography, and the arbitrator noted that other people could access the computer. The arbitrator also ruled that the use of the computer by Hoffner’s wife was not grounds for firing, and ordered the school to reinstate Hoffner as coach and repay him, with interest.

In the meantime, Hoffner had accepted a position as head coach at Minot (N.D.) State back in January. “We were down to our last few hundred dollars,” he says. “They gave us an opportunity to feed our family.” But the Hoffners had roots in Mankato, so they decided to accept his reinstatement. “The whole ordeal was the ultimate test of toughness,” Hoffner says. “Given all we went through, I think a lot of people would have surrendered.”

Hoffner returned to Minnesota State-Mankato last Tuesday. But on Wednesday, his players refused to practice, as a show of support for Keen. “That took us by surprise,” Buisman says. “We definitely turned to crisis management mode.” Says Hoffner: “The players wanted to have a voice, wanted to be heard. They were showing their loyalty to coach Keen. There’s nothing wrong with that.”

On Thursday, the players held a team meeting with Hoffner. Keen has a more personable, player-friendly coaching style than Hoffner—and over the past two seasons, that approached paid off on the field. “The overriding question from the players was, are you going to adapt to us, or are we going to adapt to you?” Busiman says. “And coach Hoffner acknowledged that it would be foolish to upset the apple cart.”

The players have returned to practice, with Hoffner doing more observing than coaching. They’ve pledged their support for Hoffner, who says he plans to meet with each player one-on-one. For now, Keen is the associate head coach, though given his success leading the Mavericks over the past two years, he’ll be scooped up as a head coach elsewhere, at some point.

“The situation is still tenuous,” Buisman says. “There’s no guidebook how to handle something like this.”

It’s public record: Todd Hoffner got railroaded in the post-Sandusky era. Minnesota State-Mankato probably wasn’t on your college football radar screen for September. Now maybe the Mavericks should be. They’ll be an easy team to root for.

TIME

What The Northwestern Football Union Means For College Sports

Kain Colter, Ramogi Huma
Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter, right, speaks while College Athletes Players Association President Ramogi Huma listens during a news conference in Chicago, Jan. 28, 2014. Paul Beaty—AP

On the surface, a union for football players at Northwestern seems like a limited development. But thanks to new precedent, and some union-friendly state laws, college athletes could start banding nationwide.

A collection of college football players at Nothwestern University and other high-profile schools, fed up with a system that enriches people involved with the game but not the actual talent on the field, started a solidarity movement last September. They wrote the initials APU — All Players United — on their wristbands during that week’s games. Just six months later, that seemingly quaint gesture could go down as a milestone in the escalating fight over how to define and compensate big-time college athletes.

On March 26, a regional director of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ruled that scholarship football players at Northwestern are employees of the university and thus have a right to unionize and fight for better health care coverage, larger scholarship funds and other benefits (Kain Colter, the former Northwestern quarterback leading the school’s union charge, says ”pay-for-play” salaries are not on the agenda). “The players now have moral high ground, and momentum,” says Harley Shaiken, a labor economist at the University of California, Berkeley. “This was a landmark decision for the future of college athletics.”

And it was an easy one. NLRB Regional Director Peter Sung Ohr reached a logical conclusion: a prior ruling disallowed Brown University graduate teaching assistants from forming a union due to the academic nature of their work. Thus, football players — who don’t read books in front of 80,000 delirious fans on Saturday afternoons — have full-time jobs, Ohr decided. Coaches aren’t professors. You get no course credit for sweating through practice.

The ruling, that scholarship football players recruited to Northwestern are employees under the National Labor Relations Act, is limited in scope as it stands. The NLRB only regulates private institutions, and the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s Division I teams are dominated by big state schools. In this year’s Sweet 16, for example, only two schools – the University of Dayton and Baylor University — are private. Of the 128 schools in the Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS), just 17 — or 13.2% — are private. And since the NLRB is treating scholarship aid as player compensation, should a cut of player scholarships go to the government?

Northwestern will appeal the ruling to the full NLRB board in Washington, but experts say the ruling is likely to stand. “I think the regional director’s decision is a sound one,” says William Gould, a Stanford law professor who chaired the NLRB from 1994 to 1998. “I expect the board in Washington to uphold it.”

Expect the union movement to expand. Athletes at public schools are subject to state labor law, and Gould points to California as a union-friendly state for athletes. California’s student-employee test, for example, asks: are the services rendered related to the student’s educational objectives? As the NLRB ruling — and common sense — point outs, scholarship football players aren’t tackling opponents in a classroom. The services rendered are related to a school’s economic objectives. So players may be called employees.

Players at, say, UCLA, could make a strong case. “There’s definitely an opening in California,” says Gould. “I think athletes at public schools there would have an easier case than the Northwestern students.” The bigger question, says Gould, is whether more players want to unionzie. Northwestern’s players have yet to officially vote to form their union.

Players in Michigan and Florida can also make strong claims for employee status and the right to unionize, according to a 2012 paper published in the Buffalo Law Review, “A Union of Amateurs: A Legal Blueprint to Reshape College Athletics.” Historically, Michigan has been favorable to student-worker unionism. Paper co-authors Nicholas Fram and T. Ward Frampton write about Florida:

As a “right-to-work” state with only a 3.1% unionization rate in the private sector, Florida might seem an unlikely candidate to pioneer collective bargaining in college sports. But the Florida Constitution enshrines collective bargaining for public employees as a fundamental right under Florida law, and in the public sector, a full 27.8% of Florida workers are covered by union contracts. The robust constitutional and statutory protections afforded public workers under state law, coupled with the dramatic profits earned from Division I football in Florida, create a favorable playing field for college athletes seeking to unionize. But perhaps most importantly, the idiosyncratic history of disputes over the “employee” status of students on Florida campuses has established legal precedent extraordinarily favorable to student-workers. As a result, “the rights of graduate assistants to bargain collectively — and perhaps, by analogy, the rights of college athletes to do the same—“are now more secure in Florida than in any other state.

And if athletes at Florida negotiated more favorable benefits, officials in Alabama, which currently gives college athletes no constitutional or statutory right to collectively bargain, could face pressure to tweak state law in order to compete for recruits. The potential ripple effect, state by state, is real.

For college athletes, finally, that’s a pretty sweet deal on the table.

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