Should College Athletes Be Able To Unionize?

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Sparked by a fight over whether college athletes should be paid to play, football players at Northwestern University have called the NCAA a “dictatorship” and are working to start a union.

Are Student Athletes Really Employees?

Players argue that they’re not just sports-participating students; they consider themselves to be much like employees, working over 40 hours a week training, practicing, competing–and generating millions of dollars in school revenue.  Sure, student athletes get scholarships, but they don’t believe such scholarships reflect their dollar value to the school.

The College Athletes Players Association, backed by leaders of the United Steelworkers union, announced its reasoning and objectives last week, led by Northwestern’s quarterback, Kain Colter. Steelworkers has agreed to pay the union’s legal bills.

A Seat at the Table

Colter argues the NCAA is a “dictatorship,” setting terms for athletes that leave no opportunity for athletes to seek ways to improve their own safety, let alone have a say about whether they receive financial compensation. For example, the NCAA claims it has no legal obligation to protect players against concussions.

“How can they call this amateur athletics when our jerseys are sold in stores and the money we generate turns coaches and commissioners into multimillionaires?” was Colter’s rhetorical question. “We just want a seat at the table.”

A union could possibly ensure that scholarships at least cover all living expenses as well as tuition for players (scholarship athletes reportedly come up thousands of dollars short each year). Unionizing would also push for full medical coverage that could carry over after the athletes’ college years.

Many players are also suing on grounds that the organization allegedly failed to protect student athletes from debilitating head injuries.

 Could Unionizing Hurt Students?

Unionizing student athletes could lead to strikes by angry players or lockouts by the schools themselves. Student athletes have a few other unionizing issues to consider as well.

The NCAA is currently in court fighting a class-action federal lawsuit filed by former players seeking a their share of the billions of dollars generated from live broadcasts, sale of memorabilia, and video game sales. Unionizing could actually hurt this case for players, making unionizing a big “if” for some players.

In addition to remaining firm on student athletes not being employees, NCAA chief legal officer Donal Remy also argues that the attempt to unionize students as employees, “undermines the purpose of college: an education.”

The key issue the NLRB must address is whether college football players are employees as defined by federal labor law. It’s possible that they could be considered employees because their job is unrelated to education; the program for which they would receive compensation does not have a fundamentally “educational” component. But it’s still a stretch.