The NCAA has long denied college athletes the right to be viewed as employees, but as of late, a change in the system is looking more and more likely.
On March 27 in Chicago, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ruled that football players at Northwestern University can legally form a union. The ruling, which came in response to a petition created by ex-Northwestern football player Kain Colter along with the College Athletes Players Association (CAPA), also described the athletes on Northwestern’s football team as “employees.” This was a surprising decision that placed the power to make history in the hands of the Northwestern players, who can now form the first ever student athlete union in college sports.
The NCAA voiced its disapproval of the decision, as did Northwestern. At press time, Northwestern had yet to request a review of the ruling, but the private Illinois university has made clear that it intends to issue an appeal. Many fear that this will take the ruling all the way to the Supreme Court, and will greatly postpone any resolution. In the meantime, Northwestern football players may form a union as soon as April 25, when the athletes will vote for or against unionizing under CAPA.
In the wake of the NLRB’s verdict, opinions have been divided as to whether or not student athletes should be seen as workers who can be part of a labor union. A common argument is that athletes dedicate the same amount of hours to their sport as employees do to their occupation, and also that they deserve better medical coverage and more in-depth injury testing, which a union could help secure. Moreover, USF legal studies professor Robert Elias points out that student athletes should to be rewarded for serving as a means of revenue for their wealthy bosses, their schools, and the NCAA.
“These employees are not paid for any of the income they generate, and they also have no other benefits that employees would normally be able to secure for themselves, especially if they were to unionize,” Elias said. “If the initial NLRB decision holds up, then it means that college athletes will have a basis for getting some piece of that enormous income, in exchange for their labors.”
In contrast, there are many reasons to believe that labor unions are unnecessary for college athletes. Some argue that since players already receive many benefits from their schools, such as guaranteed housing and scholarships, they should not be paid for their efforts. Others acknowledge that there may be problems with the treatment of college athletes, but that they should be solved by the team itself, instead of enabling unions and potentially reforming the NCAA’s system. Northwestern’s head football coach, Pat Fitzgerald, sees this method as the best possible solution.
“All this can be handled with communication. It’s about trust,” Fitzgerald told the press on Saturday. “I just do not believe we need a third party between our players and our coaches, staff, and administrators…whatever they need, we will get them.”
Despite the clashing opinions that have arisen from the aftermath of the NLRB ruling, some have attempted to find a middle ground. Larry Scott, the commissioner of the Pac-12 conference, is open to an alteration in how the NCAA currently functions, but does not feel that student athletes should receive salaries.
“We absolutely should do more and I’m going to continue to push for us to do more,” Scott said in an interview with ESPN.com. “It just can’t cross that line of starting to get paid a salary or negotiating through collective bargaining. That’s a pro model, completely different.”
While it is clear that disagreement is abound and that many are hesitant to accept student athletes as employees, the reality is that by allowing Northwestern football players to unionize, the NLRB pushed us a step closer to a world where college athletes are paid to do what they do. Since the March 27 decision, multiple players from other schools have shown interest in unionizing, according to United Steelworkers member Tim Waters. If the Northwestern players do indeed vote to become a union on April 25, intrigue from players at other universities will surely increase.
The historic decision also has implications for USF and other private universities. Since the NLRB’s rulings can only cover private schools, it would be much more difficult for unionizing to be made possible at public universities, but it is conceivable that another private school could follow in Northwestern’s footsteps in the near future.
Sophomore business finance major Kenneth Lapuz is unenthusiastic about the prospect of student athletes being paid at USF.
“Going to a school where athletes are paid or are part of a union would be somewhat disastrous,” Lapuz said. “The student athletes will express no admiration for their institution whatsoever. They will merely be paid to receive an education and to play on an athletic team, not to mention the amount of power they possess since they are unionized.”