Last Wednesday, the National Labor Relations Board ruled that a group of football players at Northwestern University constitute employees of the university, and thus have the right to form a union for the purpose of collective bargaining. This decision overturns decades of precedent in college sports—athletics in US colleges have long been based on the concept of the student-athlete, by which athletes train and compete for their universities, and sometimes receive scholarships in return.
Though the NLRB’s decision rests on sound legal footing, the formation of unions could potentially create a host of unintended problems. Nevertheless, we hope that this decision will help to place further pressure on the NCAA to reform their inequitable policies towards student-athletes.
The relationship between colleges and student-athletes has long resembled that of an employer and employee, and the NLRB ruling simply formalizes this reality. Football players at Northwestern spend as many as 50 hours a week during the season–this is more time than the average worker devotes to their jobs. Universities compensate student-athletes through scholarships, and then use the services provided by these athletes to generate revenue through ticket sales and television deals–the biggest football programs take in almost $100 million dollars annually. In short, students are paid by the university to perform a service that earns money for the university, which is precisely the role of an employee.
As employees, student athletes possibly should have the right to form a union, but that right probably shouldn’t be exercised for a number of reasons. The NLRB decision, for example, only affects students at private universities, so the formation of unions at those schools could lead to a division between public and private institutions within the NCAA. Such a division could only have negative consequences for the overall structure of the organization. Furthermore, a push for greater compensation of student athletes could force smaller programs to eliminate certain sports teams. Finally, the presence of both unionized scholarship players and unpaid walk-ons within the same team may lead to further divisions in college football.
Despite these concerns, the decision itself will be beneficial in placing increased pressure on the NCAA to reform its current policies, which take unfair advantage of student-athletes. Earlier this year, Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel was suspended for signing autographs for money, even though the university could sell his autograph; four years ago, Georgia wide receiver AJ Green was suspended for selling one of his jerseys, while the university received a tidy sum of money for selling thousands of those same jerseys. By paving the way for increased compensation for student-athletes, the NLRB ruling will hopefully push the NCAA towards a reform of its exploitative rules.
The move to unionize will also help student-athletes receive fairer compensation for their services to universities. The College Athletes Players Association, the union which petitioned the NLRB, simply wants universities to pay the full cost of attendance for student-athletes, since a “full scholarship” is not sufficient at most schools, as well as lifetime medical care for injuries sustained in the course of school athletics. The decision allowing the unionization of football players serves as a valuable step in pushing for these fair demands.
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