Unions for college athletes is a step in right direction

Unions for college athletes is a step in right direction

Kevin Griffin

Editor’s note: The following is the point in a point/counter-point on whether or not student-athletes should be allowed to unionize. Read the counter-point here.

Those who have argued that the refusal of payment or representation to college athletes is unfair and unjust may be on the verge of  a significant victory, thanks to a recent National Labor Relations Board decision.

Responding to a petition from Northwestern University football players, a branch of the National Labor Relations Board has ruled that the players are in fact employees of the university and thus have the right to unionize, according to the New York Times.

So far, the ruling only applies to football players at Northwestern, but as the issue goes to the federal level of the NLRB, the scope of the decision may be broadened.

Naturally, the ruling was opposed by both the university and the National Collegiate Athletic Association, and for good reason. For decades now, these institutions have crafted the notion of the student-athlete to deny players compensation while profiting enormously from the efforts of those players.

With this ruling, we may well be progressing to a new phase of college athletics where players can finally gain some of the control they deserve and have long been denied.

The term student-athlete was specifically coined to give the NCAA an excuse for not paying players. The NCAA first created the term following the 1953 Colorado Supreme Court Case University of Denver v. Nemeth, which allowed an injured football player workman’s compensation on the grounds that he was a university employee.

As we can now see, the term student-athlete has little meaning.

Athletic scholarships are explicitly based on physical ability, and can be lost if students cannot play. An economic benefit is offered under certain conditions, just as in the case of employment.

Although the NCAA has made the move toward allowing multi-year scholarships, the majority are still single-year, renewable contracts, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education.

As the NLRB ruling mentions, players may work up to 50 hours a week on football related work, which, according to Bloomberg, yields around $16 billion annually.

Nor do these scholarships cover everything. A 2011 study by the National College Player’s Association found that 85 percent of on-campus athletes with full scholarships lived below the poverty line. The number was almost the same for those off campus.

The case is far from settled so far. Northwestern University is appealing the decision to the federal NLRB, so there will be sometime before a final decision on the matter is reached.

It might be said that giving these athletes employee status is a slippery slope, but why not extend this to all college athletes?

The distinction between football and basketball players and other athletes is the generation of revenue. Players in those sports generate large revenues that they do not get a cut of, something that cannot be said of all sports.

Even though the argument could be extended to other sports, it is an argument well worth having. The current system is unfair and unjust to the players.

If the colleges and NCAA want to continue the current system, they should pay players and allow unions.

The NLRB decision is a first step in rectifying this unjust situation.

Kevin Griffin, a sophomore journalism major from Madison, is an opinion writer.