Kain Colter, who led the movement to unionize the Northwestern University football players
Kain Colter Twitter

While I was standing in line at my local grocery store, in front of me stood a tall and burly black man. In front of him was a woman using a gift card to pay for groceries and attempting not to go over the $100 on the card. The cashier referred to both people by their last names, with the proper Mr. and Ms. in front of them. This is a small town. Even the cashiers know everyone.

The burly man was asked about his son, who apparently was a top high school football player now embarking on his freshman year playing football at college. The man seemed excited, but there was also a tone to his voice that denoted exhaustion.

“We’re glad he has this chance,” the man stated. “But come this winter, we’re not sure how we’re going to be able to afford to send him winter items.”

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“Yeah, I know it gets cold up there,” the cashier replied.

From what I surmised from the conversation, although the freshman player was on a scholarship, his parents still could not afford the basic amenities he needed to survive in the cold-weather area in which he’s now living. As a football player-student, he can’t work a job or take money from “donors,” which brings us to the discussion of how athletes are treated by schools for which they rake in tens of millions of dollars each year.

On Monday, according to NBC News, the National Labor Relations Board threw out a request by football players at Northwestern University to unionize. The movement was led by Kain Colter, a quarterback for Northwestern from 2010 to 2013. The university opposed having athletes involved in collective bargaining with their schools, but unionizing the sports program had its fair share of defenders.

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“These young men make a lot of money for these very wealthy coaching staffs and the university, and I think the discussion is really important,” Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) said. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said last week, “Of course they should be able to organize. The way these people are treated by the NCAA and the universities themselves is really unpardonable, and I wish them well. I’ll do anything I can to help.”

Then there are those who believe that student-athletes should be grateful they are able to receive full-ride educations, and just worry about punting the ball down the field or throwing one through a hoop. But speaking of education, how much effort is put into ensuring that these students are actually receiving one?

And what happens when a student is barely making ends meet while at school? Students need more than a roof (dorm) over their heads and more than the meals provided in a cafeteria.

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I remember on several occasions while I was in college, student-athletes would sneak food out of the cafeteria after every meal, just so they could have something left over for later. These athletes didn’t have the benefit of having extra pocket change to head to the student-center store. Most of these athletes weren’t afforded the luxury of having parents who were able to send them money on a weekly basis. A lot of times, these athletes, before they left home, had also been providers for their families.

As universities rack up millions of dollars, year after year, off the sweat of these young men and women, would it be too much to ask to give these athletes a piece of the pie, while they’re seemingly providing their servitude to a university over their four, sometimes five, years in college?

These student-athletes are worth more than the scholarships they’re given. The return on investment they provide these universities should go into their pockets, too.

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As for the man standing in line at the grocery store who was worried about not having enough money to get his son winter gear? The cashier told him to set up an online donation account to see if friends and relatives would help.

“I don’t have a computer,” he replied.

Needless to say, those few minutes of standing in line at the grocery store highlighted the fact that college athletes are receiving the short end of the stick.