Keep Unions Out of College Football

In the spring of 2014, the Northwestern University college football team was urged to vote for unionization by the National Labor Relations Board in Chicago. While the actual result of the vote is sealed until federal regulators decide whether the student-athletes are to be considered to be employees of the university, the football team has tremendous pressure to perform well in the 2014 season.

On August 30, 2014, the Northwestern Wildcats lost to the California Bears in Evanston, Illinois, by the score 31-24. The season is very young; however, Northwestern was a 7.5 – 10 point favorite, according to, which meant that the Wildcats were almost a lock to win.

By declaring that a student-athlete is an employee of the Northwestern University, the football player must be producing a product that is beneficial to the university. What exactly is a student-athlete producing? Is the football team selling the university positively in university donations when it competes on the football field? Or is the student athlete benefiting from competing on a successful football program? Can a student-athlete be fired during mid-season for underperformance? This would be a monumental court decision that will change the direction of how all athletic departments perform at the college and even secondary school level.

There has been a push by major sports networks to pay student-athletes for participating in a high revenue-making sports for its university’s athletic department. While it is true that large football programs are earning millions of dollars each year, only a handful of colleges are so successful. Some schools earn their income from sponsors and alumni and only a select number of schools are fortunate to have created a steady revenue stream through a conference network. So, for the NCAA to allow “pay for play” in athletics and maintaining an equal recruiting platform, the smaller schools like the Mountain West Football Conference must have an equivalent financial footing as the Southeastern Conference…which is obviously never going to happen. So “pay for play” will never be a serious option.

The next step is unionization. While it is important for unions to protect the safety of its clients, the NCAA provides insurance options and most universities offer local insurance plans that are also available to the student body as a whole. Other issues that unions may offer protection include the number of practice sessions, the number of conditioning sessions, and shoulder pad sessions per week. Safety appears to be a large motivation for unionization especially now that the truth about concussions are becoming known.

Are student-athletes employees of a university? A student not participating in athletics at a university may apply for scholarships, grants, and student work. The NCAA must have extreme rules that include employment by student-athletes. The reason for this is because many large universities were (and still are) caught paying their star athletes even when they never did any work. The far majority of students at the NCAA Division I colleges are required to pay their entire education, including room-and-board; some even pay out-of-state tuition. The majority of student-athletes, especially in football, receive a full-ride scholarship in exchange for having the opportunity to compete for the NCAA Division I football program.

So if the university already provides payment via a free college education, why are student-athletes still feeling greedy? Student-athletes see the payouts to the major conferences for football programs that are invited to compete in the Bowl Championship Series games and they want some of that money. Unfortunately, NCAA has repeatedly explained that its student members, unless exceptions apply, must maintain amateur status. This is similar to an intern who works for virtually nothing while gaining an exceptional on the job experience. Student-athletes must be students first and then athletes.

Now, suppose that the unionization of the football players at Northwestern University is upheld. What then? Will a college student expect a significant payment for a major scientific discovery while using university equipment and facilities? Will a college student demand that the number of assignments, term papers, and exams be limited? And what about high school student-athletes? Will they also demand that they be paid for their performance? As it is, many schools are suffering from extremely tight budgets and have to require its students to pay to participate on a team whether they participate in competition or not.

In my opinion, a student-athlete is a student and is required to use the university facilities, the knowledge of its university coaches, and borrow the university equipment in order to be individually “successful”. A student-athlete is another name for a college intern. Only professional athletes ought to be paid for their performance. Good luck since only 1 out of 100 college student-athletes are successful in playing for a professional football team.

Article by John Coder

Posted September 1, 2014


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