March 27, 2014

NEWCOMB | College Football Unions: Student Athletes, Now Student Employees

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On Wednesday, the Chicago district of the National Labor Relations Board ruled that Northwestern football players qualified as employees of Northwestern University and had the right to form a union. This is the first step of many in challenging the ruling hand of the NCAA and its growing power over the world of college sports. The misconception being thrown around by the media, and the NCAA itself, is that Northwestern players are fighting to be paid. Rather, the ruling shows that they already are paid — in the form of their scholarship — and deserve a chance to represent themselves and establish workers’ rights in connection with their scholarship.

The NCAA, the governing body for college athletics, was formed in 1906 as a nonprofit association, and is currently made up of 1,281 institutions. As college athletics have grown in popularity, the NCAA has been unable to adapt to the changing scenery. Top athletic programs earn more than $100,000,000 in revenue each year from ticket sales, media deals and various other avenues that come back to the athletic program and university. Ultimately, if there is no help provided to student-athletes with such high expectations, something will give, and Colter’s point is that, as it currently stands, the “student” part of “student-athlete” is what suffers.

With its ability to put programs on probation (there are currently 10 such programs), and thus jeopardize these profit centers, the NCAA has held an untouchable power over athletic programs. The revenue lost by not attending bowl games and losing scholarships for their football team is a sacrifice that affects these schools where they feel it most: in their wallets.

The fight to allow college football players to unionize is being led by Kain Colter, Northwestern’s quarterback. His focus is on the distinction of “student-athlete,” which is a term the NCAA invented to try and avoid the gray area being confronted by Colter and the Northwestern football team.

The main point of their argument is that the scholarships they receive act as payment for their performance. In order to receive their scholarship, they have to play football. In order to play football, they have to be healthy and abide by team rules that are outside the realm of what is required of a normal student. The fact that their scholarship depends on these circumstances, they argue, would legally make them employees.

The long-held argument of universities and the NCAA alike is that college athletics are enhancements to the regular student life. With only one percent of college athletes playing professional sports, the emphasis should clearly be on the “student” and less on the “athlete,” but the demanding intensity and competitive nature of college athletics often skews this distinction.

What makes Northwestern the right school to confront this issue is that it is a school that has never received any sanctions from the NCAA, meaning it represents a “best-case scenario.” Northwestern, admittedly, is not a football powerhouse, and if the conditions presented by Colter constitute employee status, it can be reasoned that similar, if not more egregious, circumstances would apply to other schools.

Last fall this tenuous balance was thrown into the spotlight when Ohio State backup quarterback, Cardale Jones, tweeted the following: “Why should we have to go to class if we came here to play FOOTBALL, we ain’t come to play SCHOOL, classes are POINTLESS.”

Jones is not alone. Players have previously come forward about cheating on entrance exams to meet minimum standards, being steered off of their intended course path so as to keep a lighter load during their season, and worse, graduating from four-year universities without being able to read — all of them were considered “student-athletes”.

This disconnect between what is being shown to us in the media and what the NCAA is choosing to believe is staggering. Colter is not advocating for athletes to be paid, because this ruling agrees that their scholarship already constitutes payment. He is calling for a much needed reevaluation of how athletes are treated and how their scholarships depend on their performance. He highlights the fact that student athletes are asked to pay some of their medical bills out of pocket (and are not compensated for long-term injuries), that the 40-hour week that football requires makes it hard to put being a student first and other academic and welfare issues that conflict with the NCAA’s preached intentions.

This is a step in the right direction. Do I think that all football players will join unions and be paid in the future? No, I don’t. What I do think is important is that this case will set the precedent for players to force the NCAA to come to the table and have honest discussions about the circumstances that face today’s student athletes and create better methods for protecting player health and success. The nuances of what it means to have a scholarship have long been unaddressed, and Colter’s push to unionize will give students much needed representation in bargaining for their “job security” and “worker’s compensation” when injuries affect their ability to play. While the uninformed population took to social media saying that Northwestern was trying to “ruin football,” I would argue that they are focusing their attention on the NCAA, which undeniably needs change.

Northwestern University is appealing this ruling, and this case will most likely be tied up in court for years to come. The first stone was thrown, though, and the NCAA will have to answer some of these questions and inconsistencies. Ultimately, if there is no help provided to student-athletes with such high expectations, something will give, and Colter’s point is that, as it currently stands, the “student” part of “student-athlete” is what suffers.

One thing is certain; today, and every day, I am proud to be a Northwestern fan.