Former NCAA president Walter Byers coined the term “student-athlete” in the 1950’s in order to shield the organization from an obligation to pay injured athletes worker’s compensation. According to Byer's definition, student-athletes are not employees and, for this reason, some argue, should not be able to unionize. Others disagree, arguing not only that workers generate revenue but also that the power dynamics that define collegiate athletics – hierarchical relationships between administrators, coaches and players – closely resemble the relationships and structures that characterize lawful employment.
Employees or not, student-athletes deserve fair representation in the NCAA. Unionization, in particular, allows players to secure better access to health care and ensures that injuries sustained during their college careers will be covered even after they leave college. In pushing for this kind of representation and its likely health benefits, the Northwestern players have thrown themselves into a nationwide discussion about mental injuries, football’s inherent physical hazard and the responsibilities of the National Football League and NCAA.
The NFL and NCAA are very different organizations. NFL players are granted lucrative contracts, allowing them to reap some of the revenue they generate and, in some cases, compensate for potential occupational health risks. College players, on the other hand, are not paid. Although some argue that athletic scholarships are fair compensation for student-athletes, it is hard to accept this claim as true, given that some Division I schools have utterly failed to educate their athletes and football-related concussions can cause permanent physical and mental damage. There is no denying the value of college scholarships, especially for low-income students. But, given what we know about concussions, “student-athlete," as far as football is concerned, is a contradiction—the mind receives an education, but the brain is put in harm’s way.
In the unlikely event that the Northwestern team ignites revolution in college athletics, questions remain about the legitimacy and effectiveness of college athletes players’ unions. Health care is costly—if athletes unionize and successfully lobby for better medical protection, they might force universities into austerity cuts for non-revenue generating sports. If universities have to reallocate funds, scholarships and sports supported by revenue-positive teams will be at risk
This tradeoff is not sufficient reason to deny athletes the right to NCAA representation. Institutions devoted to liberal values and academic excellence ought to protect the rights of those who represent it on the field. Although the formation of a player’s union could cause unforeseen consequences for athletics across the board, collegiate athletes deserve some form of basic lawful representation before the NCAA.
If Northwestern’s players succeed in unionizing, it will give student-athletes at Duke and elsewhere an opportunity to participate in decisions that have profound effects on their lives and careers. It is time to revise rules that bind our student-athletes to the outdated definitions and outsize power of the NCAA.