Calling it like we see itFootball players at Northwestern University won a major victory last week when a regional director of the National Labor Relations Board determined that the players were employees of the university. The ruling enables the players to form a union and could set an important precedent for other private universities, including Duke. As we wrote last month, student-athletes deserve fair representation in the NCAA, and the NLBR’s ruling promises to give athletes more control over the multibillion-dollar industry they work to sustain.
Peter Ohr, the NLRB director who issued the ruling, argued in his decision that the traditional student-athlete model is no longer consistent with the character and function of big-time college athletics. We agree. Not only do student-athletes prop up a commercial edifice that draws in billions of dollars in television contracts alone, but these players also devote more time to their sport (sometimes upwards of 50 hours a week) than many salaried employees commit to their work.
For so-called “revenue” sports, like football and basketball, student-athletes often find it difficult to balance a demanding practice schedule with intensive study. As a result, not every revenue sport athlete receives the maximal benefit from his or her college education. Student-athletes may attend classes, but in some cases the “athlete” seems to be crowding out the “student.”
For this reason, calling student-athletes “employees” does not represent a radically new way of understanding college sports. It simply exposes college athletics for what it is: a lucrative industry that relies on the unpaid labor of near-professional athletes. Insisting that college athletes are employees not only gives the lie to the student-athlete model, but it also forces us to reckon with the possibility that the NCAA’s treatment of student-athletes is exploitative. In calling student-athletes employees, Ohr, like any good officiator, is simply calling it as he sees it.
Given that many student-athletes are functionally employees, why do the NCAA and universities with big-time athletics programs remain wedded to the student-athlete model? The likely answer is that college sports programs generate huge sums of money, and only by clinging to the student-athlete designation can the NCAA justify not letting the players in on the action. The NLBR ruling is likely the first step towards monetary compensation for student-athletes. Given that other student employees—like undergraduate teaching assistants and sports managers—are paid for their labor, it only seems fair that student-athletes should receive more than a scholarship for their work.
We support players’ unions but recognize that compensating student-athletes threatens to undermine aspects of the current college sports model. The NLRB’s ruling may invite athletes of revenue sports at other private schools to petition for employee benefits, like salaries. If universities were to cave to those demands, students who participate in non-revenue sports could see cuts to their programs. Universities might not be able to award as many athletic scholarships, and revenue sports might have to institute competitive pay schemes to attract high-quality players.
Despite these potential drawbacks, designating certain student-athletes as “employees” better reflects these students’ contributions to their school and to the NCAA. It promotes fairness and protects the rights of student-athletes.