Columnists, Sports

The Blue Line: NCAA unions

On Wednesday, college sports changed forever. The Chicago National Labor Relations Board deemed Northwestern University’s football players employees of the University. As such, they are eligible to form the first collegiate athlete’s union in history.

Peter Sung Ohr, regional director of Chicago’s NLRB, made the controversial ruling, declaring that college athletes are athletes first and students second. The NCAA has stated for its entire 104-year existence that collegiate level athletes are students first and athletes second. So, Ohr’s ruling has the potential to overturn a quintessential NCAA mandate.

The effects of the movement to unionize are immediate at Northwestern. The NLRB has directed an election for scholarship football players who have not exhausted their eligibility only. Excluded from the election, rather ironically, is the union movement’s leader and former NU quarterback Kain Colter.

Northwestern accepts the ruling made by the NLRB, but plans to appeal it. NU is an institution that believes that student-athletes are students, not employees.

“This ruling would potentially be the end of the NCAA as we know it,” said Seth Borden, a lawyer representing employers in labor relations for McKenna Long & Aldridge LLP. Unfortunately, I couldn’t agree more. The NCAA will never be the same.

College athletes work incredibly hard for their respective sports. The Northwestern football team, for example, spends at least 50 hours a week training during the offseason, and at least 40 per week during the regular season. They make each and every decision during any given day with their football schedule in mind. These particular athletes certainly deserve to be compensated for their tremendous work ethic and drive.

To me, though, the education received while playing at the collegiate level is more than adequate compensation. Northwestern’s cost of attendance for the 2013-14 academic year is about $63,000. If we multiply that number by four, ignoring inflation and annual increases to tuition, we discover that a four-year scholarship to NU would be worth over a quarter of a million dollars. I’d say that’s adequate compensation.

The concern then shifts to student-athletes not participating in academics. A prime example just recently occurred at the University of North Carolina. An athlete turned in a final paper that consisted of four sentences and about a dozen grammatical errors, and received an A- grade. So, a new question arises: What good is an academic-based scholarship to someone who doesn’t want the education in the first place?

Many athletes run into very serious financial troubles as they age. These particular athletes live posh, lavish lifestyles for the duration of their career. After retirement, however, when their supply of income dwindles immediately to nothing, they are left with extraordinarily high mortgages and car loans

It is in the best interest of newly recruited athletes out of high school to go to college. It seems cliché, but in order to be financially stable past the age of 50, all athletes must have at least an introductory class in career management, just to familiarize themselves with key monetary concepts.

Additionally, maybe a fraction of one percent of the hundreds of thousands of college athletes in America will ever play at a professional level. Those who don’t make it pros (the 99 percent) will need their degree they earn to help their job hunt out of college.

To the skeptics who say that the NCAA should continue to pour money into minimizing brain injury risks, I direct your attention to how strong the efforts have been on a collegiate and professional level to reduce the occurrence of injuries. Despite countless research and development initiatives, various improvements to helmets and innumerable penalty additions to increase player safety, injuries have occurred, occur now and will continue to occur for the entire foreseeable future.

I truly am concerned with injuries. The stars of today and tomorrow alike are all at great risk. But, it has become far too obvious that despite the efforts made by the NCAA, athletes are still going to get hurt. The fact that every collegiate level athlete can have his or her career ruined at any given second on the field is a harsh reality. Every athlete at any level willingly takes a health risk to play any particular sport.

In a letter to the editor of the Daily Northwestern (NU’s newspaper), Norman C. Wang, an alumnus of the McCormick School of Engineering and Feinberg School of Medicine, wrote fiercely against student-athletes becoming employees.

“The day that student athletes become recognized as employees … is the last day I will care about college athletics.” Dr. Wang, that day appears to be upon us.

The intentions of unionizing are good; clearly, Northwestern University is only pressing for unionization to protect its athletes. And I truly understand the plea for protecting college athletes, as they are always at very high risk. However, unionizing college sports programs will be far too complicated a system. It is not the right path of action that needs to be taken.

One Comment

  1. Jason Massman COM/CLA '93

    There’s another question yet to be asked about the college athletics unionization push. Once players at the big-time football powers in the SEC start getting paid by both boosters and the university payroll, can they be brought up on charges for double-billing?