Special edition: is unionization of college athletes a good idea?

NLRB Rules in Favor Of Northwestern Football Players

Yesterday, Northwestern University made national news when the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) in Chicago ruled in favor of the football players, meaning that “football players at Northwestern University are employees and can unionize” (emphasis added). The written decision explaining its ruling is here, and I’ll save the parsing of its decision for another day. In rendering its decision, the board considered athletes “getting paid in the form of scholarships, working between 20 and 50 hours per week and generating millions of dollars for their institutions” as passing the threshold for attaining employee status at the university. Athletes will benefit from the status change in seeking “better medical coverage, concussion testing, four-year scholarships and the possibility of being paid.” Ramogi Huma, president of the National College Players Association (NCPA) highlighted the key issue which drove the need to unionize: “athletes in the revenue-generating sports of college football and men’s basketball are taken advantage of by universities, conferences and the NCAA, making billions from games, while the players sometimes struggle with basic needs like medical care, concussion testing and guaranteed scholarships.”

But the battle is far from over. The regional NLRB office issued a statement that “any requests for review of its decision must be filed…in Washington, D.C. by April 9.” Northwestern intends to appeal as far up the chain as the U.S. Supreme Court, but a final ruling on this matter may not occur for years. For now, football players at Northwestern are employees of the university. I hasten to note that the precedent might apply only to private universities – while the NLRB is federal law, it “has no jurisdiction over public universities“; the NLRB believes it will eventually impact public schools.

Donald Remy, chief legal officer of the NCAA, made some interesting comments worth analyzing: “We frequently hear from student-athletes, across all sports, that they participate to enhance their overall college experience and for the love of their sport, not to be paid,..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.”

Looking at the first statement, one might notice the comment about the “love of the sport” and realize that the purpose of collegiate sports is to enhance the college experience, not overtake it. Perspective is the big issue here, and there’s a comment by a football player which illustrates this point beautifully. Kain Colter, the leader of the unizonization movement and a former quarterback for Northwestern, discussed his “year-round time requirements, at times 50 hours a week devoted to football.” His devotion to football forced him to leave his pre-med studies major “because he couldn’t fit his classes into his schedule.” Colter is one of many athletes to voice complaints about the college experience and the sacrifices made. Perspective: it is more important to stay on the team and put in the 50 hours a week over pursuing a pre-med major.

Take those complaints, attach it to Remy’s “need for improvement” comment, add the NCAA’s alleged intention to helping students focus on classroom experience, and it looks like you have a recipe for healthy change. Athletes want success in academics and athletics – so does the NCAA, in theory – a weak theory, at best – and universities want success in both areas for recruiting and financial purposes. Do we blame the coaches for making the athletes work so hard? Do we blame the media for hyping up collegiate sports? Do we blame the universities and boosters for putting too much pressure on its coaches and athletes to perform in order to accumulate wealth? Here’s a novel idea: blame them all, because they’re all responsible in some way. College is supposed to educate students, not to prep athletes for professional athletics. Money mongers fail to understand, or choose to willfully (and blissfully) plead ignorance in understanding, erects a proverbial wall that precludes change. It does not improve matters when “about 15% of men’s football, baseball and basketball players said they would have had different majors had they not been athletes.” Some majors require a substantial commitment to meet their academic requirements…a commitment that is nearly impossible to make if you’re spending 40-50 hours a week on the field. Otherwise, you’re sending more incompetent individuals into the working world.

Now, let’s examine the “improvements to the NCAA” comment. To be frank, the comment is simply one of those comments politicians make to appease the public, but nobody ever does something to create impacting change. The substantial amount of hours some NCAA athletes put into their sport is equal to or greater than some of the hours put into a weekly job in the real world…and these kids are attending a higher education institution to obtain these kinds of employment. Take the premise that it is ludicrous to think that student-athletes can handle a 40-50 hour a week athletic commitment and expect them to carry a full course load…oh yeah, and pass. That is similar to having a non student-athlete taking on enough side jobs to constitute 40-50 hours a week and taking a full or near full course load. Universities would have no problem admonishing those students and/or kicking them out if they failed, but if they are featured athletes, they do everything but kiss their rear-ends because of money. Note: if coaches did not mandate athletes to train double the allowed number of hours, it would likely decrease the need for medical protection and exploitation. Furthermore, if athletes do this to themselves in order to surge or remain ahead, then that’s a consequence they must absorb.

If those expectations are unrealistic, then what changes has the NCAA done to ensure that coaches are honestly respecting their athletes’ time? And before some NCAA official wants to brag about their “anonymous reporting” system statistics to keep coaches in check for their 20 hour a week maximum requirement, save it. Some athletes continue to report (whether officially or unofficially) high numbers at practice; failure to adhere to the coaches’ desires results in a loss of playing time, loss of a scholarship, or being neglected to the point where the athlete quits the team. Few athletes rat out their coaches because of the coaches’ interests, the universities’ interests, or the athletes’ interests. I argue that the NCAA incorporated mechanisms which look like something was done on paper, but in reality had a relatively small impact on the domineering collegiate sports. Heads up, NCAA – your weak and ineffective changes led to this NLRB decision.

Perspective: if you want a shot at making it into a professional league, you have to put in the 40-50 hours a week to train. If you don’t, you can’t play at that level. Student-athletes are left with a few choices: 1) transfer to a school with a less rigorous sports program that allows one to focus on the major of his choice (and it seems that males face this problem more than females), 2) give up the major, or 3) give up the sport and focus on the major. Spoiler alert: all three choices violate the purpose and intent of having the NCAA. Choice #3 violates the spirit and intention of the NCAA – the point is to encourage student-athletes to excel in and out of the classroom, not walk away from one to pursue the other. Choice #1 is appealing, but only if you’re uncertain about your prospects in the sport. And, if you chose the initial school because of academics, then you’re back at #3. Choice #2 also violates the intention of the NCAA in the very depiction of the student-athlete – a phrase that some college athletes might reconfigure to athlete-student. While other options may exist, these reign as the main ones athletes ponder.

And finally, let’s discuss the last point about the 99 percent of student-athletes not reaching professional athletics. If that’s the case, then why are we letting the minority speak for the majority? (Note: the irony is that the players fighting for unionization didn’t / wouldn’t have made a professional team – they just want protection for future players.) Right – because we’re America. Our nation has become so overly sensitive in certain areas that we miss the original point entirely. Some athletes are upset about how much they play and the lack of protection they receive in participating in collegiate sports. Newsflash: sports come with a substantial amounts of inherent risk – some more than others (football). At this stage of our human existence, it is extremely difficult to neutralize most of the risks inherent in some sports. And it is true that many collegiate and professional athletes (football mostly, but it includes basketball and baseball) players will leave the game with more problems than before. Ramming your head for 40-50 hours a week for four years will incur irreparable damages in some cases. “Yes, I voluntarily assume the risks of what will happen to me should I decide to play this sport – but please give me money to protect all of the risks I knew about, because I really want to do this activity.” I do not mean to imply that all sports with those inherent risks should cease all activity, but I do not believe the reasoning is sound enough to potentially threaten an entire system by treating players like employees. Most agree that the system the NCAA created became a system that substantially exploited some student-athletes for billions of dollars. While I think the NLRB’s decision to treat athletes as employees at Northwestern sent a strong message to the NCAA to reinvent itself, I do not think the application of the decision will lead to the intended results for private universities.

Going back to the article, the irony is that Northwestern’s president emeritus said “if the football players were successful forming a union, he could see the prestigious private institution giving up Division I football.” Football teams at prestigious universities do not pay for themselves like most public universities; it is expensive enough to hold and outfit the team. But the effect does not apply only to Northwestern. Private institutions with high academic standards (the article mentions Duke and Stanford) with BCS eligibility “could abandon the current model in order to preserve academic integrity.” In other words, the college institutions who are lucky to have decent football teams and high academic achievement would sacrifice the sport for the academics.

Although the potential transition may provide some shock value, the Ivy Leaguers might appear nonplussed and scoff, “been there, done that.” Shortly after the 1950s, the Ivy League schools “decided to opt out of postseason play and to end athletic scholarships, preserving the emphasis on academics for the players.” Their decision to give up the “certain kind of model for sports,” but that has not stopped them from succeeding in collegiate athletics. While its athletes don’t matriculate into professional sports nearly as much as other colleges, some do, and they manage to complete all of their academic work on top of it (not that drawing comparisons between Ivy League academics and most other universities in the nation). Jerry Price, senior associate athletic director at Princeton commented that their decision to “maintain academic integrity” trumped “the commercialization of what football was becoming.” Ivy league schools have football programs, but its turnout is significantly less than schools in bigger conferences like the SEC or the Big Ten. It is foreseeable that private universities with similar academics and rigor to the Ivy League level may opt out of Division I football as well. Therefore, it is likely that the short-term impact of the decision will do more harm than good in some respects, but may allow the small contingency of athletes to pursue majors they originally intended.

I know some people might jump for joy in seeing the decision rendered by the NLRB. However, I maintain heightened skepticism over its potential success. There is no disagreement on my end that the NCAA must change to help athletes succeed. I reiterate that the NCAA appears to make cosmetic changes that affect only the appearance of what should be right, not what is right. While hypothetical situations about what the NCAA should have done prior to athletes’ running to the NLRB might make for an interesting sports law class, it does little to answer the question of what to do now.

As I see it, there is a fundamental conflict with a key term thrown around at universities: the fallacy of the student-athlete. A student-athlete that spends 40-50 hours a week on the playing field, training or watching video puts the athlete first and the student second. NCAA, its conferences and leagues, and the universities built its domineering empire on “athletes who attend college,” and pride themselves on the fanatical “student-athlete” phrase that is devoid of all applicable reality. While the majority of athletes do not make professional teams, all athletes in certain sports appear to be treated as if they were all destined to “make it to the big leagues.” Athletes are put on this pedestal, “encouraged” to spend more time on the practice field to maintain or elevate their statuses. If they fail to make it,, they are pushed off the pedestal without a second thought and quickly replaced with young, new and naive athletes who hope to realize the same dream but will likely suffer similar fates. It is a cruel system, but it is nearly impossible to practice those types of hours and expect to have enough involvement in certain majors to come out and represent someone knowledgeable about the subject…unless those athletes actually practiced at or below the 20 hour maximum allowance.

It is possible to have a healthy balance of protecting the athletic and academic interests of the student-athletes. I reiterate, because some entities might forget this very simple point: college gives students the skills needed to enter the working world and become a functioning and contributing member of society. College is not a preparatory outlet for professional athletics. If so, then colleges are doing an awful job at it if only 99 percent of collegiate athletes are making the cut. Seeing as though it is not, it might be best to take a page out of the Ivy League schools and scale back some of the hype to preserve and protect the primary purpose of higher education – education. Overall, the decision might provoke the NCAA to make actual changes (if the appeal holds in favor of the football players, but the NCAA should begin its work now) which is needed. Unfortunately, the power of the decision will likely make most private universities give up some of its revenue sports in favor of academics.

 

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