Friday, March 28, 2014

A potential game changer for college sports: Unionized athletes

Kain Colter, the outgoing quarterback at Northerwestern
Yesterday, Michael Tarm of the Associated Press reported on the National Labor Relations Board's ruling Northwestern University can create the first-ever union of college athletes.  While the ruling only applies to Northwestern, it has the potential to dramatically alter the landscape of college athletics, athletic department budgets, and the experience of student-athletes.
that football players at

At the core of the decision was the question of whether football players at Northwestern qualify as "employees" of the university?  In his ruling, Peter Sung Ohr, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) regional director argued that the players meet the two major criteria for employees:  first, they are "compensated" through athletic scholarships and, secondly, they are under the strict and direct managerial control of coaches and athletic administrators.  In his 24-page decision, he went on to say that players are "identified and recruited . . . because of their football prowess and not because of their academic achievement," citing a lack of any real evidence that scholarship players are ever allowed to put academics first by missing games or practices in order to attend to academic obligations.

These are murky waters that Northwestern's players union, as well as the NCAA and all of its member institutions, are wading into.  College sports have long been held up as a model of amateurism and are viewed by many as the pure and wholesome alternative to the greed and commercialism of professional sports (this is particularly true at this time of year when the country is caught up in the romance and drama of the NCAA men's basketball tournament with its narratives of the underdog school and players who play for the love of the game).  So, if unionizing were to become widespread among college athletes, fans may not be so quick to view them as the noble, self-sacrificing "student-athletes" that are portrayed in the NCAA's recent marketing campaigns.

At the same time, Kain Colter (a former Northwestern quarterback,who has been the public face and leader of the push), his teammates, and their supporters have a fair argument.  For athletes participating in "revenue sports" (e.g. football and men's basketball), their lives look a lot like a professional athlete in that their in-season time commitment approaches that of a full-time employee, they do receive compensation (though minimal) for their involvement, and their lives are very highly structured by coaches who dictate how they spend their time and what other activities they are involved in.  In short, they look a lot like institutional employees, but without many of the protections that an employee in another part of the institution might have (e.g. coverage of "work-related" medical expenses).

At this point, the goals of the College Athletes Players Association (CAPA), which is the group that will represent the union, are to ensure coverage of sports-related medical expenses, advocate for policy changes that will help to reduce head injuries, and to begin discussions about the possibility of allowing college athletes to pursue commercial sponsorships.  It's this last one that will raise eyebrows, again, because it calls into question the notion of amateurism that has made college athletics palatable, even when its dark side has reared its head.

For the time being, this ruling only effects private institutions, and only football and men's basketball players on those campuses.  But, like ESPN legal analyst Lester Munson has pointed out (+Lester Munson), the ruling could quickly snowball to effect a much broader range of institutions.

There is a fundamental tension at the heart of this issue between protecting the rights of athletes and preserving the romanticism of amateur college athletes.  Is this the beginning of the end for amateurism in college sports?  Just a necessary protection for college athletes?  Which side of the fence do you come down on?  Which side of the issue should be more heavily weighted?

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