Do College Football Players Need a Union?

Before unions, coal workers in the Midwest were drenched in dust working 100-hour weeks for meager pay in the dangerous and dirty underground caverns. Before unions, hundreds of immigrant women on the East Coast slaved over hot sewing machines in clothing factories. And before unions, college football players across the country played a game for a season for the mere earnings of five years’ free tuition, room and board, free food and free trips around the country.

The coal workers and the factory workers have had their movements-- it’s now time for the college football player. At the end of March, in a groundbreaking decision likely to be boosted all the way up to the Supreme Court, the Chicago regional National Labor Relations Board ruled that Northwestern University football players on scholarship are employees of the university, and therefore, have the right to collectively bargain.

Dubbing student athletes as employees is an acknowledgement that the latter of their title takes precedence over the former.

A model that considers players as employees and scholarship money as compensation fundamentally changes the model,” Amy Perko, Executive Director of the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics says. “The Knight Commission believes that a better model (will be one) that serves students who want to compete in high level college sports...and serves the university to provide serves the university in achieving their mission-which is an educational mission.”

Of all university employees, the contract for the football player is the cushiest. Starting from high school, student athletes are schmoozed and pampered: million-dollar coaches promise teenagers hundred thousand dollar contracts, premier training and a socialite’s life style. Professors are forced to cater to their scholarships and their accomplishments are applauded as if they are deserving of the same recognition as a soldier returning from war.  

The reality is that “50 to 75 percent wouldn’t even be in college if it weren’t for athletic scholarships,” says Adrian McBride, a former Cleveland Brown turned entrepreneur and advocate for college athletes’ professional development. Most student athletes are first generation college students, and separately those whose grades do not meet the standards other potential students must meet.  

And most poignantly, they do not make a profit.

Of 2,000 university athletics programs across the country, there are only eight that make money for their university. Every other single program, from the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) to National Collegiate Athletics Association Football Bowl Subdivision (NCAA FBS)- comprising of hundreds of thousands of student athletes- does not make a profit, ranging from struggling to break even to a net loss of hundreds of millions of dollars.

Doesn’t it seem misguided to empower an already inflated presence in the university community?

“There needs to be change, and to treat athletes as students and not as professionals,” Perko, of the Knight Commission, says. “This position puts more pressure than ever before on whether those types of changes will be made.”

The Knight Commission does not support the unionization and says the NCAA and the universities must be responsible for making the alterations. She says many of the implications of being considered employees and eligible for union representation raises many questions, such as taxable compensation and the university’s mission, and that universities shouldn’t exist to build semi-professional sports teams.  

“We need to get back to the primary position of college sports-which is to provide an educational and developmental experience through sports,” Perko says.
Rick Kepler, an organizer for the Cleveland Teamsters, says that too many people think firstly of money when it comes to unions. He says there are three main issues in this case, that the athletes want: assurance of medical care for when they are injured, academic support to secure their education, and secondarily in importance, and getting money from their likeness.

“If you listen to these guys, absolutely they want to get educated at that university but they want support in making that happen.” Kepler says. “They’ve got to spend their time training, being on that field, dedicated their whole day to their football career, because they’ve got to secure those scholarships.”

Steve Hays, professor at Ohio University and outspoken activist on Intercollegiate Athletics, agrees and says that’s exactly why student athletes should be able to collectively bargain.

“There’s no faculty member anywhere that has that kind of power over an undergraduate student,” he says.

Because most of these students wouldn’t be in college without the scholarship and because coaches hold the purse strings on the scholarship, student athletes are left in a powerless situation. Worse, as McBride points out, they finish school without the professional development their peers have earned, leaving them unable to compete in the post-grad world.

“They recruit the crap out of kids- black, white, female, city, country. They cater to them, they coddle them- from day one up until they leave school and then they’re left to drift out there like a deserted island all by themselves,” McBride says. “Some of them figure it out; most of them don’t.”

There is a method in psychology that purports that name recognition, the ability to describe the problem provides relief in itself. Though the Chicago regional NLRB’s official ruling is that the student athlete is more athlete/employee than student, the potential lies in the fact that the problem is described: the student athlete is an employee of the university.

The NCAA’s lawyer was quoted in the New York Times as saying “While improvements need to be made, we do not need to completely throw away a system that has helped literally millions of students over the past decade alone attend college… we want student-athletes — 99 percent of whom will never make it to the professional leagues — focused on what matters most: finding success in the classroom, on the field and in life.”