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Optimum Performance: How heath-care benefit reform factors in Northwestern University union vote

Have you ever heard a coach say to an injured player, “do it for the team,” or how about, “suck it up and play,” referring to suiting up and playing with a minor injury. On the other side of the coin, an injury in pro sports to a key player (with a guaranteed contract), which goes unresolved, could get a general manager fired, or the medical staff replaced. Someone has to account to the owner, as to why the high priced injured “star” is sitting on the bench for too long.

Last Friday, Northwestern University’s scholarship football players voted on whether to certify the first union in college sports — the result of the ruling last month by a regional official of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB).

The results will need to wait, since it was announced that the NLRB will review last month’s decision by the regional NLRB official. The NLRB can weigh in on private employers, such as Northwestern, but not public sector employers.Should the players vote to unionize, they will be entitled to worker’s compensation benefits (which could address treatment of work /game related injuries), unemployment insurance, and a portion of the revenues generated by their sport participation.

What if they players took the lead of Northwestern’s football coach, Pat Fitzgerald, along with other school officials, who urged the players to vote no. “A fight to keep college athletes from the pain of injury costs ” — a column by Ben Strauss in a recent New York Times — is part of the reason why Ramogi Huma, the president of the National College Players Association has, “helped lead a recent push to unionize Northwestern’s scholarship football players.”

Medical care of injured college athletes has hit the forefront of NCAA reform, partly because of the increasing rate of head trauma in contact sports like football. Strauss notes that, “under NCAA rules, can still lose their scholarships after getting hurt, often pay for their own insurance and are generally responsible for long-term health care for injuries sustained on the playing field.” However, it is unusual for an injured athlete to lose a scholarship, especially if the attending physician uses the NCAA provisions to medically disqualify the injured athlete from playing that sport again. In that case, the athlete would be permitted to finish the degree process and not count against the school’s scholarship limitations. But, the athlete would not be able to play any intercollegiate sports at that institution.

The NCAA has also previously removed limitations on medical benefits and given universities more leeway to provide athletic care. Huma says, “it’s the most important thing” – referring to the reform of the NCAA policy on medical care of injured athletes. “We’re talking,” notes Huma, “about taking care of the players.” In 2005, I terminated a successful NFL Draft Preparation Program for two reasons: Katrina and being tired of seeing too many injured athletes coming out of college hoping to make it to the big show with an array of uninsured damage control that my program had to contend with. As a walk-on wide receiver at Tulane in the mid 1970s who earned a varsity letter in 1975, I sustained a damaged tendon in one finger and a fracture in another from smashing my fingers on the helmet of a defensive back. I received great care from the Tulane athletic training staff, under the direction of Bubba Porsche, and saw then team orthopedic surgeon Ray Haddad. I still proudly sport the damage today, as a remembrance of some of the best years of my life. But I am willing to bet that private universities with intercollegiate sports programs are afraid of two words — workman’s compensation. Just ask the pro teams about that one.

Mackie Shilstone, a regular contributor to | The Times-Picayune, has been involved in the wellness sports performance industry for nearly 40 years. He is currently the fitness coach for Serena Williams, has trained numerous other professional athletes and consulted a litany of professional sports franchises. He is St. Charles Parish Hospital’s Fitness and Wellness expert. Contact him at

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