For the last 60 years, courts have characterized college athletes as students rather than employees, a decision that has prevented them from unionizing. On Tuesday, the Northwestern University football team filed a petition to join a labor union with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). If they are successful, this could open the door for college athletes at private universities across the country to collectively bargain.
The right to unionize has long been awarded to their professional counterparts and, given the nature of the relationships between athletes and universities, they deserve a seat at the bargaining table as well.
Ramogi Huma, a former linebacker for UCLA, approached the United Steelworkers more than ten years ago about forming a union for college athletes. The Steelworkers’ leadership said they were shocked to discover that some athletes were struggling financially and that, in some cases, coaches could revoke their scholarships easily. In collaboration with the Steelworkers, Huma founded the National College Players Association as a sort of parallel to the NFL and NBA player associations.
At Northwestern, the National College Players Association has been working with Kain Colter, the team’s starting quarterback and a pre-med with a 3.1 GPA. Under Colter’s leadership, almost the entire Northwestern team filed petitions to unionize. The NFL Players Association has also voiced its support for the Northwestern football players.
The players have explicitly stated that they are not forming a union out of a desire to be paid salaries by the university. Rather, their demands include the ability to collectively bargain on issues of medical expenses, due process before the removal of scholarship and educational trust funds to assist former players in graduating.
Although college athletes have never successfully unionized, graduate students have been able to unionize at a number of public and private universities, including NYU in December. Depending on party control of NLRB appointees, the Board has gone back and forth on whether graduate students at private universities should be considered employees.
The most recent NLRB ruling in 2004 declared that the relationships between graduate students and their universities are mostly educational and that therefore they do not have the right to unionize at private universities. The decisions over whether or not graduate students at public universities have the right to unionize is left to the discretion of the states, and many have chosen to allow it. The Obama-appointed NLRB is also expected to reverse the previous decision on private graduate students.
The term “student-athlete” dates back to the 1950s, when there was discussion of providing workers’ compensation for injured college athletes. According to the Buffalo Law Review, the NCAA president designed the term to intentionally confuse the nature of the legal relationship between athletes and universities. By calling them student-athletes, the NCAA ensured that the athletes would be viewed primarily as students, not employees, and therefore could not easily demand collective bargaining rights.
Given the NLRB’s history, the Northwestern football players’ struggle to be recognized as employees is clearly an uphill battle. It is unlikely that they will be immediately successful in their petition to unionize. Still, the decision to file the petition is important as part of a larger movement to end the blatant mistreatment of student-athletes at many institutions. Given the gigantic revenues many of them draw in for their schools, they at the very least deserve proper medical attention, security in their scholarships and paths to graduation that fit with their athletic expectations.
Recognizing these athletes as employees may also change they way that they are viewed by other students. Most Yale students have been exposed to discussion of how student-athletes are “dumb” in comparison to the rest of the student body, a result of perceived lower performance in classes that could very well be attributed to the massive time commitment of being a member of a varsity team. Would the same be said of a student devoting 20 hours a week to a job? Probably not. Admittedly, at a highly selective college like Yale, there will likely still be discussion over admissions standards, but recognizing college athletes as employees could very well help change the negative perceptions that many people have of athletes.
Of course, the crucial matter at hand is the mistreatment of many athletes at colleges around the country, particularly at sports powerhouses like Northwestern. It is great to see these athletes beginning to take a stand for themselves. If they are not granted their demanded right to unionize, at the very least they will have forced universities to start taking the complaints of athletes seriously.
Diana Rosen is a sophomore in Pierson College. Her columns run on Mondays. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.