Last month, Northwestern University quarterback Kain Colter, who was at the National Football League Combine — a gathering of prospective NFL players where they are evaluated mentally, physically and by position before the draft — challenged his alma mater, as well as the National Collegiate Athletic Association, for the right for collegiate football and basketball players to unionize. The hearing, spearheaded by Colter, the inaugural spokesperson for the advocacy group College Athletes Players Association, was held before the National Labor Relations Board to try to change the categorization of collegiate athletes from “students” to “employees.” We commend Colter for challenging the NCAA and its monopoly on athletes, but we do not believe that unionization is an appropriate option for Cornell, or any other collegiate athletic program.
Colter claims that student-athletes do not have a “voice” within the NCAA. He suggests that unionization would allow players to bargain for things like stipends, continued medical coverage, more concussion testing and even a portion of the profits made by these athletic programs. While Colter’s initiative is admirable, we do not believe that players should be afforded the right to be characterized as employees, since they are supposed to be students and focus on their education.
Colter’s proposal, which suggests that student-athletes should receive a portion of a university’s profits from athletics, is unsubstantiated. The purpose of collegiate athletics is that the students are “amateurs,” according to the NCAA, and they play to represent their schools. If they were compensated for their play, there would minimal differences between a collegiate athlete and a professional one. Additionally, at schools with large sports cultures that focus on athletics as much as on academics, many athletes are on scholarship, and sometimes receive full tuition for sports like football and basketball. Giving them additional compensation aside from their scholarships — which provides an opportunity for education — and from the athletic stage that the universities provide is unnecessary.
This potential change to NCAA guidelines would not affect Cornell directly, other than making a change to the relevant policies. Our football or basketball teams are not driven by the profits from television deals or paraphernalia, like other schools in larger athletic conferences. In fact, there are very few teams at Cornell that would make enough money to pay athletes on top of their current operating costs. The salary Colter is suggesting the University gives to student-athletes would be the only form of financial incentive that Cornell could give to players, since the Ivy League uses a need-based system to award financial aid.
We believe that the current system of governing collegiate athletics is flawed, and that discussion around changing certain policies will benefit student-athletes under NCAA jurisdiction in the future. However, student-athlete unionization is not the solution to the culture of big-time athletics, but instead will act as a catalyst to continue to treat student-athletes differently than their peers.