Last week, the players of the Northwestern University football team were granted permission by the regional director of the National Labor Relations Board to unionize after they were recognized as employees of the university. Northwestern and the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) are challenging this ruling since both have a considerable amount to lose if athletes are made into employees rather than just students. With the right to unionize, the players of Northwestern have struck a blow against the unfair system that is college athletics and it appears that the system is going to fight back with all its legal might.
The NCAA has long been criticized for its policies regarding the treatment of college athletes because of the huge amount of money made by colleges off of their players. ESPN reviewed the amount of money made by colleges from their football programs in 2008 in order to show just how lucrative college football is. The numbers are astounding: Alabama made the most with $123 million in 2008 and even Temple managed to scrounge up $27 million at the bottom end of the rankings. Northwestern University has made, according to former quarterback Kain Colter, around $235 million over the past decade from its football program. The new TV deal for NCAA football is supposed to be for $7.3 billion over the next ten years and the new deal for screening March Madness is worth $10.8 billion over 14 years. The stadiums built for teams to play in show the importance of college football in America and the wealth generated: Michigan Stadium can almost seat 110,000 people with Penn State only a few thousand behind. All the biggest stadiums in America are owned by colleges and are usually sold out on game day. Schools benefit from huge TV deals, sponsorship, donations, product placement and all sorts of player-related endorsements in exchange for giving their players a scholarship to go to their school and a chance at making it in the professional leagues. The system is inherently unfair.
And that is what the Northwestern football team pointed out to the NLRB. Currently, football players at Northwestern play or practice over 50 hours a week with little to no compensation. They represent the university in advertising campaigns and have no control over their images because if they did they would be entitled to compensation. Their scholarships aren’t even theirs to control. Players have complained that their coaches have too much control over their lives. Given that the coaches and the school view the players’ roles as being athletes first, representing the school in football, there is not a strong argument for the case of Division I college athletes being students at all. To put this all in perspective, the European Union dictates that workers shouldn’t work over 48 hours a week, which is fewer hours than the work week of some Northwestern football players. It appears to be a broken system that abuses and takes advantage of the players to the benefit of the universities and the NCAA.
The current case worked on precedents set by older cases as to the role of student athletes and other student roles on campuses around America. Previous judgements have been made on students and their association with the universities they attend. In 1953, a student-athlete, Ernest Nemeth, at the University of Denver successfully sued for workers’ compensation after being injured playing football. There is a history of cases involving former sports players successfully getting money from the schools they played for as employees of any company would if they were injured on the job. However, there are also cases where the state has struck down appeals by student workers to unionize or gain protection from the state. Brown University Graduate Assistants tried to collectively bargain with the university back in 2004, but were hindered from doing so since a Rhode Island court termed them to be students first and employees second. If the Northwestern football team were allowed to unionize, it would mean that they aren’t primarily students of the university, but they would become employees of the college and therefore be entitled to all sorts of new benefits that they currently do not receive.
But this brings up the issue of why the NCAA controls the rights to all players and prevents student athletes from any sort of compensation. The purpose of a student athletic program is to learn primarily and to play competitively for the remainder of the time. Northwestern is arguing that their players are students and then athletes. While this argument may be valid for athletes here at Swarthmore, this argument is less clear in profitable Division I men’s basketball and football. Players who are recruited out of college and become stars cannot control their images or gain anything from their fame. The institutions that control their rights and the NCAA gain financially from the players in college while the players themselves are prevented from gaining anything legally. The NFL has to hold classes each year for their rookies on how to deal with having money now that they are out of college. While that is a great idea, it is one that is created purely by the colleges taking so much from their student athletes and giving so little back to them. College athletes shouldn’t necessarily be paid like NFL athletes or even paid at all by the college, but they should compensated in other ways than just their scholarships and they should have control of their own image, which they can then choose to sell as they wish.
Whatever happens with the Northwestern football team will resonate throughout college-level sports. The policy currently in place is similar to indentured servitude and plainly is in dire need of change, mush like many things in the world. But something can be done rather quickly about this issue and the Northwestern team is leading the way. A collective bargaining agreement from a union of football players would be a starting place for bigger negotiations on the place of athletes in a university structure.