With Northwestern football recently winning a landmark ruling from the National Labor Relations Board that grants scholarship football players the right to form a union as university employees, the debate has commenced about whether unionization could be good or bad for college football. Two of our writers, Zach Bigalke and Alex Brooks, have divergent opinions on the subject. You can find Alex’s article here.
For decades, colleges and universities have argued that student-athletes are anything but employees of the institutions they represent on the playing fields. Amateurism, they say, is laudable — just as long as the cash keeps flowing into the athletic department coffers. While coaches and athletic directors see increasingly astronomical salaries and benefits from the popularity of collegiate athletics, the actual athletes that determine wins and losses have continued to be stifled by Draconian policies intended to perpetuate their subservient status.
Nowhere has this been more apparent than college football. While coaches are feted with country club memberships, lucrative media opportunities, and base salaries that make them the highest-paid public officials in 27 different states, athletes have seen no gains from the exponential boom in money flowing to athletic departments. One need look no further than schools ludicrously reporting violations on portion size at team banquets and the reality of grant-in-aid gaps that leave student-athletes in debt despite the “full-ride” nature of their scholarships to see how the system has been skewed against those that take the greatest risks with their bodies.
For too long there has been little if any respite for athletes looking to redress these grievances. Players have been treated like chattel by the schools they ostensibly represent. But the inequality between those who perform as athletes and the people who benefit from their toil may soon be coming to an end. The National Labor Relations Board ruled on Wednesday that football players at Northwestern University qualify as school employees under federal law and thus have the right to unionize.
The burgeoning movement, led by former Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter when he was still playing for the Wildcats, has led to the creation of the College Athletes Players Association. The CAPA, now bolstered by the NLRB ruling, aims to offer greater opportunities and protections for athletes while in school. Among their goals are guaranteed coverage of sports-related medical expenses for current and former players; the creation and implementation of better procedures to reduce head injuries; and the right of players to pursue commercial sponsorships and non-sports-related opportunities. Hardly a blind attempt to take the money and run, the efforts of Northwestern players could soon force a more equitable situation for the most disenfranchised party with a stake in college athletics.
Originally coined as a way for universities to get out of labor obligations, the “student-athlete” moniker has for too long been a club wielded by the NCAA and member institutions as a convenient means of skirting responsibility for injuries — whether physical or fiscal — accrued by the young men and women representing colleges. Now, with the potential for collective bargaining on the table, the players have a trump card to better protect their interests.
Why should a fan support the unionization of collegiate athletics? Why is a (not quite) full-ride scholarship not enough compensation for these young men and women?
A scholarship is an incredibly valuable resource, and is often the only avenue that many young college-bound students actually have to obtain an undergraduate education. Yet the fact that the NCAA and universities have been quick to accept the plaudits for their seeming charity, while simultaneously obfuscating the fact that their grants-in-aid often fail to cover the full costs of school, indicates a duplicity where these institutions want to gain all the benefits of cheap labor without any of the burdens of responsibility.
Suffer a paralyzing spinal injury on the football field, such as that endured by Eric LeGrand while suiting up for Rutgers? The university is absolved of any duty to make sure your medical bills are covered.
Endure a horrific broken leg in the course of play on the basketball court, like Kevin Ware did while playing for Louisville? There is no stipulation in a scholarship that guarantees effective treatment of the injury.
When an employee is injured in the course of fulfilling his or her work duties, the employer is obligated by workers’ compensation laws to cover the expenses of recovery. When schools step up and do the right thing in these situations, they are perceived as paragons of compassion going above and beyond their obligations. Doing right by the people on whom a business is built should be implicit, not a public-relations opportunity.
The National Labor Relations Board has paved the way for this deplorable situation to be rectified. By ruling that student-athletes qualify as employees under federal law, it opens the door for those student-athletes to finally unite and force better working conditions from their putative employers.
Unionization has become an almost dirty word throughout much of the United States, the legacy of collusion by government and corporate America to dilute the protections afforded by collective action. But unions still serve a valuable function, for working together employees can achieve far greater improvements in their collective situation than they ever can working individually.
Not every student-athlete is going to go pro in his or her sport of choice. But the fact already stands that, by accepting some form of compensation (i.e. scholarships) to perform on the field of play, they have gone professional on one level.
And don’t think for one moment that this merely means the death of athletic scholarships. There will still be the same chunk of money sitting on the table of every athletic department, and the best schools will still want to entice the best talent to matriculate on their campuses. The scholarship to ensure student eligibility will have no bearing on whatever eventually evolves in terms of payroll for the athlete. The ability to go beyond the NCAA-manufactured construct of “student-athlete”, to evaluate separately the scholastic and athletic sides of these individual lives, is no different than any other student forced to work for his or her keep.
They’ll still have to get grades to be admitted at the institution. No student-athlete has argued about that, and the lavish facilities that have sprung up across the nation to help keep these players eligible as students will be just another enticement for the most physically-gifted individuals to choose one school over another. These realities of college sports aren’t going away.
What is going away is the concept that a “student-athlete” should just pipe down, be grateful, and accept whatever the “grown-ups” decide. We always talk about the beauty of sports being that they provide a level playing field. Now, thanks to the NLRB, these student professionals finally have the tools to more effectively protect their interests and level a playing field that has skewed far too long toward the interests of schools at their expense.