Opinion: Looming mess with Nebraska football highlights need for college athletes to have a union

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Earlier this year, Urban Meyer and the Jacksonville Jaguars were fined by the NFL for violating the rules that govern organized team activities. The way Meyer explained it, the league cited eight plays during an offseason practice that went beyond the boundaries of allowable contact during those sessions.

It might not have been some egregious violation, but it was black and white in the rules negotiated between the league and the NFL Players’ Association. Meyer was fined $100,000 and the team $200,000 — not an amount that will cause either of them to go broke, but enough to discourage it from happening again. In the end, everyone moves on.

Contrast that with Nebraska on Wednesday, which acknowledged publicly that its football program is being investigated by the NCAA after a report by the Action Network raised allegations of organized off-campus workouts during the COVID-19 pause and other practice violations, including improper involvement by analysts.

This is now, on the eve of a critical season for Nebraska coach Scott Frost, going to be a significant cloud hanging over his future. The NCAA will have to launch an expensive investigation that could take years to resolve before the school is assessed penalties, most of which will impact people who are long gone from Nebraska.

Meanwhile, everyone is going to lawyer up because there’s a $20 million buyout potentially hanging in the balance if Frost has a fourth consecutive poor season. Given that those buyout numbers can either go to zero or be negotiated down significantly if NCAA violations are pinned on a coach, it’s not unfair to wonder whether Nebraska is perfectly happy with this turn of events.

Holding secret workouts during a pandemic doesn’t necessarily make Frost a bad guy. But it does make him a dumb guy working in a nonsensical system that relies on coaches taking the NCAA’s rules seriously when there’s no counterbalancing force like a players’ association to ensure that they do.

This is where the NCAA’s refusal to embrace a college athletes’ union makes no sense and hurts the people it purports to protect.

In the NFL, there’s an agreed-upon set of standards between the players and the league for what you can and can’t do. Because the players' union exists to enforce that end of the bargain, there aren’t likely to be many rules violations in the first place. But when allegations are raised by a whistleblower, not only are they protected by the force of the union, but it’s already laid out in the contract how it’s going to be adjudicated.

That’s not how it works in college sports, where the job of figuring out whether coaches are holding illegal practices falls to underpaid and overworked compliance staffers whose offices are in the same building as the coaches they’re investigating.

Meanwhile, the players themselves have few good options if a coach is blatantly violating practice rules, like Frost has allegedly done. If you were a Nebraska player last year, knowing full well that these workouts weren't supposed to happen, would you just go along with it because you don’t want to risk your spot on the team? Would you try to leak it to the media anonymously? Would you tip off the NCAA? Would you transfer?

These aren’t good choices, and putting college athletes in that position is extremely unfair. And yet, it happens all the time, because there’s no way for players or even assistant coaches to protect themselves without jeopardizing some other aspect of their situation.

It’s no coincidence that so many of the recent NCAA investigations involving coaching violations were launched either by disgruntled former members of the program or by a school trying to wriggle out of paying a buyout.

Last year, Texas A&M was penalized for exceeding the time limits on offseason workouts during 2018, which first came to light when a former player spoke with USA TODAY Sports. According to Yahoo!, the ongoing investigation at Arizona State reportedly revolves around a dossier that was sent to the school by former staffers, detailing alleged violations of recruiting rules that the NCAA made to limit in-person contact during the pandemic.

Shortly before firing Jeremy Pruitt in January, Tennessee acknowledged that it had launched an internal investigation into unspecified NCAA violations, which was a pretext to firing him with cause and avoiding an expensive buyout. Kansas had previously tried to do the same thing with former coach David Beaty and ended up paying him $2.55 million in a settlement.

With the NCAA in the middle of a major overhaul of its structure and purpose — even president Mark Emmert suggesting that the organization should have a different role in college sports — this seems like an area where a lot of things could be cleaned up.

The current system that relies on schools investigating themselves is a failure, and too many schools who gave out bad contracts to coaches are abusing it while tying up the NCAA’s investigative resources on banal violations that aren’t particularly relevant to its core mission.

If you really want rules to be enforced — particularly those that relate to player health and safety, practice time and coaching conduct — the best incentive is to put a players' union on the other side of the table, negotiate the boundaries and let them raise any issues they have.

Colleges have argued for years that unions aren’t acceptable because they make the athletes professional, but who are they kidding? As we speak, college athletes are cutting deals — and in some cases, schools are directly or indirectly involved in the process — to make money off their name, image and likeness. The rubicon of professionalism has long been breached.

The question now is whether you’d rather have a system that handles workout violations with a press release or a years-long, messy, expensive legal odyssey.

It shouldn’t be a difficult choice, and perhaps even Frost would now agree with that. If he had a players' union to be afraid of, we almost certainly wouldn't be talking about allegations of illegal workouts today. And he wouldn't have to worry about potentially losing out on $20 million.

Follow USA TODAY Sports Dan Wolken on Twitter @DanWolken.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Nebraska football mess shows why college athletes need a union