Student-athletes unionize

The phrase “student-athlete” has always been common in collegiate athletics, but a recent decision to allow Northwestern football players to unionize may promote the athlete-student rather than the student-athlete.

On Wednesday, Peter Sung Ohr, representative of District 13 of the National Labor Relations Board, which enforces labor laws under the National Labor Relations Act of 1935, ruled that Northwestern football players should be able to unionize. Ohr’s ruling is the first of its kind and may open up the doors for student-athlete unionization at other private institutions around the country, which could have second-order effects on universities governed by the NCAA such as Yale.

“The motivation behind NCAA athlete unionization is to get paid on top of athletic scholarships because being a college athlete requires as much time as a full-time job,” said offensive lineman John Oppenheimer ’14. “There definitely is some argument for athletes at big-time schools getting paid because of the revenue they bring in to their respective schools such as SEC football and Big 10 basketball.”

Despite the unprecedented decision at Northwestern, the smaller scale of the Ivy athletic programs in terms of profits generated for the school coupled with the lack of a scholarship contract for Ivy players makes unionization unlikely.

University President Peter Salovey said in an email that he did not believe that the case applies to the “Ivy Leage in general or Yale in particular.”

“There are no athletic scholarships in the Ivy League,” Salovey said. “Varsity athletes are considered students first, and their financial aid is provided on the basis of need, just as it is to any Yale College student. If a varsity athlete were to stop playing his or her sport at Yale, it would have no financial aid implications.”

The decision to render Northwestern players as employees and permit them to be subject to proper employment laws and unionization came after Ohr was able to separate scholarship athletes’ academic roles, under which capacity they are students, from their athletic roles, in which they are employees of the university. Ohr’s decision hinged on ruling that athletes who receive scholarships are employees. In the Northwestern decision, Ohr found that the players’ situation met the four prerequisites for a union: The scholarship offer is an employment contract, the millions of dollars in revenue the school generates due to football are the employer benefits, the stringent rules of the coaches are imposed control and the scholarship amounts to employee payment.

While at Yale student-athletes are not under contract to play and do not have scholarships to play their respective sports, the decision may end up transforming NCAA regulations, which could in turn disrupt all of Division I athletics.

Though Northwestern plans to appeal the decision, Northwestern would be obligated to bargain with the players for their benefits if the union were to form. However, the NCAA has inflexible guidelines on what players can and cannot receive as benefits for their collegiate athletic experience.

As a result, NCAA guidelines would either have to change or the bargaining would be severely limited. In more drastic potential reform, rival bodies could form to contest the NCAA’s control.

“Ideally, someone would create a competitor to the NCAA, in which it would better redistribute the revenue college sports make on their athletes so that the athletes were able to reap the benefit through improvements in long term medical coverage and scholarship contracts, but not in player compensation,” said 2013 football captain Beau Palin ’14.

Furthermore, football at Northwestern is a massive money maker. One of the four required criteria to be met in order to form a union is that the employer receives benefits. In the case of the Wildcats, the football team brings in millions of dollars per year at the university. At Yale and other Ivies, however, there are no athletic teams on par with Northwestern’s football program in terms of revenue.

Athletic administrators at Yale said they were “not ready to completely evaluate the situation.”

Yale and other Ivies have been the subject of labor reviews overseen by the NLRB before, albeit under very different circumstances.

In 1995, Yale graduate students went on a “grade strike” due to what they thought were unfair working conditions. In 1997, a trial between Yale and the Graduate Employees and Students Organization (GESO) took place before the NLRB, where Yale argued the strike was partial and interfered with University activities. The judge sided with Yale’s argument and later GESO appealed the decision, leading to a settlement. GESO dropped all unfair unemployment charges, and Yale promised to publicize its “commitment to freedom of expression,” according to Yale’s NLRB webpage. A similar ruling occurred at Brown in 2004.

Kain Colter and other union representatives from the Wildcats will be in Washington, D.C. this week to discuss potential legislation.

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