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Will Unions Save College 'Student Athletes' from Poverty?

The National Labor Relations Board says that college athletes are technically employees and therefore should be allowed to unionize. Great—now how long before they can get paid?
April 8, 2014, 12:00pm
Photo via Flickr user bp6316

The 2014 NCAA men's basketball tournament came to its frantic conclusion on Monday night, with hundreds of millions of dollars in bets, ticket sales, and ad revenue changing hands across the country as young men hurled themselves at each other in desperation on national television. In the end, UConn point guard Shabaaz Napier was basking in the glow of victory, smiling for the cameras with his teammates, which made it easy to forget that he recently expounded on the seedy underbelly of college sports in America.


"I don't feel student-athletes should get hundreds of thousands of dollars, but like I said, there are hungry nights that I go to bed and I'm starving," he told reporters in late March when asked about the Northwestern University football team's ongoing effort to unionize.

In case you haven't noticed, big-time college athletics is a pretty sordid business that rests on the exploitation of the labor of young men and women, many of them from poor backgrounds, under the auspices of the dubious "student-athlete" construct. Supposedly these kids are on campus to learn first and play second, ridiculous one-paragraph essays notwithstanding. But as has beenrepeatedly pointed out, the universities, coaches, and NCAA brass rake in huge profits each year—college sports is now a multibillion-dollar industry—while the kids who don't make the pros (or suffer heinous injuries before they have the opportunity) are largely left high and dry.

Fed up with the status quo, the Northwestern Wildcats—a mediocre but widely identifiable Division I football program—filed with the regional office of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to form a union and earn legal recognition as employees earlier this year, and, in what is being hailed as a potentially landmark ruling, they won. Now the students are set to vote on April 25 on unionization, and there is at least some chance they will embrace the opportunity, assuming the university overlords don't scare them away from the idea. With employee status and union bargaining power could come protection for those with athletic scholarships from suddenly being cut off from receiving an education if they became injured or didn't perform as expected—and maybe, further down the line, they could receive a real share of the cash generated by the massive advertising revenue their athletic endeavors make possible.


"People are beginning to sense that there's a serious imbalance between duties and rewards in the college sports industry," said Robert McCormick, who co-authored an influential paper with his wife (and fellow Michigan State University Law School professor) Amy C. McCormick in 2006 called "The Myth of the Student Athlete" that helped expose the moral bankruptcy of the NCAA. The kids involved are clearly at school primarily to play sports, rather than focus on academics, a priority their athletic departments often take pains to ensure their schedules reflect.

Naturally, Northwestern promptly appealed the regional NLRB's decision, which is now poised to go before the full panel in Washington, DC, for review (ballots from the election later this month will probably be impounded until the final decision comes down). Most legal observers and labor experts I canvassed expect unionization to survive that test, but the broader qustion of whether students are effectively employees and thus ought to be able to unionize is, both sides agree, bound to end up in federal court sooner rather than later. Like most cartels, the NCAA is unlikely to give up its monopoly without a protracted, clawing fight. And even if the unionization push goes forward, the students will almost certainly not begin clamoring for wages immediately, as being paid in that fashion would directly violate NCAA regulations and cause them to lose eligibility for the coming season, something we have to assume the players do not want to happen. At least not yet.


There are those who would go further than Northwestern's current football squad, however, and bring the whole system down right now. Jeffrey Kessler, perhaps the nation's premier sports attorney—he helped usher in the concept of free agency—has his own moral crusade against the college athletics industrial complex, which he thinks has already benefited from the Northwestern students' narrower unionization drive. He is representing four plaintiffs in what he hopes will become a class-action antitrust lawsuit against the NCAA and the five "power" conferences (the Big Ten, Big 12, SEC, Pac-12, and ACC), accusing them of "price-fixing" for the failure to provide compensation to players who are not, despite what the schools like to claim, amateurs.

"The ruling in the union case that the students are employees is very helpful to us," he told me. "You can't be an amateur and also be an employee."

I have to admit I was initially skeptical of NCAA player unionization, not because I approve of the current system or think unions would fail to remedy its injustice, but because I tend to think of college sports programs—and football teams in particular—as fundamentally right-wing subcultures whose members probably do not love the idea of organized labor.

Then again, maybe it doesn't matter all that much whether these kids are politically progressive, or even politically motivated at all. So long as the group has American self-interest flowing through its collective veins, securing legal status as employees will always be an appealing option. Everyone wants money, right?

"They may be right-leaning, but as far as their own lives are concerned, they're very aware of how they're being taken advantage of," McCormick told me. "They don't have enough to buy groceries."

So the economic bottom line is the thing, and while one or two teams setting up unions will not bring the NCAA crashing down, the surging sense of collective outrage at how they're being treated seems likely to give college athletes a financial boost in the future. It's just a question of how long the cartel masters can hang on.

"Their whole empire is starting to crumble," said Tim Waters, political director for the United Steelworkers union, which is lending the Northwestern team a hand. "Change is just pounding on the door trying to get in."