Last week, the National Labor Relations Board handed down a landmark decision that Northwestern University football players were employees of the school, and as such, had a right to unionize. While the players have yet to put the matter to a vote - that's expected to happen shortly - Stanford coach David Shaw struggles to see the need for such potential action.
"I'm as confused as anybody as to the importance of this," Shaw said. "I'm curious what's really driving it. I've seen everything, and everything that they've asked for, my understanding is it's been provided. I think Northwestern does a phenomenal job providing for their kids. It's weird to try to unionize but still compliment Northwestern and compliment their coaching staff on being taken care of. Those things don't seem to go hand-in-hand.
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"You're talking about a place like this where it's $60,000 a year on scholarship, I know we have healthcare, etc... we have 20 hours a week, etc... Other people are chemistry students that have a lot of hours also. So I'm curious. I'm curious to where it goes from here. I'm curious how it affects everybody. I'm waiting to see why this is so vital. We haven't had a kid go out of pocket for a surgery. There's not a kid here in particular that's ever had an issue that we haven't tried our best to take care of in a healthcare reason. That would go against everything that we stand for."
Shaw added that Stanford's emphasis on taking care of its players' health isn't just limited to when they're on campus. The Cardinal head coach refuted comments in a recent story that alleged Stanford pulled Kain Colter's scholarship - Colter is the face of Northwestern's union efforts - because Colter suffered an injury during his senior year of high school.
"I can tell you 100 percent there was no issue with his injury," Shaw said. "Our track record speaks for itself. We've never dropped a kid from a scholarship offer or from a commitment because of an injury. That's all I'm going to say about it. I'm not going to get into details. But there's no way, ever. I had Colorado (as a recruiting territory) at the time. I went to his high school. I talked to his high school coach. I sat there with him for an hour and a half and watched all the kids' film. There was no way we dropped a scholarship offer because he got hurt."
"We've never ever dropped a kid because of that and we never will."
Along those lines, while Stanford has had some "preliminary conversations" with its players about the union, Shaw emphasized that the value of playing college football extends far beyond the gridiron.
"We'll talk about it as a football team, we'll talk about it as an organization from the president to the provost to the AD to me and we'll see where this goes from here, but there's nobody that has our players' best interests at heart more than us," Shaw said. "If this is a cost of attendance thing we'll do whatever the NCAA allows us to do. But I'll tell you this: I know we're preparing these young men for more than just football. We're not using them for anything. We're giving them an unbelievable education, unbelievable contacts. Hopefully they have a phenomenal experience here, athletically and academically and socially. And hopefully they go on to influence this great nation. To insinuate that there's anything we're doing to harm these young men, I think it's not correct."
Stanford linebacker A.J. Tarpley doesn't yet have a strong opinion on the NLRB ruling and the prospect of Northwestern unionizing, but lauded the Wildcat players for taking initiative to help improve conditions for college players.
"I'm still gathering knowledge and facts about everything but I do commend those guys for starting the change and I do believe that a change is necessary," Tarpley said.
"This is for guys that have played, gone through the college system. It's kind of one of those things where those guys have the best interests of the players available. They're not selfish trying to get themselves better. They're trying to better everybody."
The fifth-year senior linebacker also recognizes some of the potential backlash to players at prestigious - and pricey - institutions like Stanford speaking out about the current system. But not every school's degree is as valuable as the one players obtain for Stanford, and obtaining greater benefits would help players across the board.
"A lot of people feel college players themselves are being exploited," Tarpley said. "You never want to take that out of context. Specifically being a Stanford player, everyone likes to point out your degree is worth so much. How could you complain? But the big picture is, what about the guys that go to lesser schools academically? They're not getting the same education that we are and they're putting in the work on their bodies that we are, doing the same hours that we are. What about them? And those are the majority (of college players). So that's the big picture. I think as a Stanford player a lot of guys try to nitpick that and say, 'Well, you can't complain because you go to Stanford.' But I do think change can happen and will happen in the future."