Last week, the National Labor Relations Board ruled that football players at Northwestern University could unionize. The ruling, while likely to be appealed, could eventually have a major impact on collegiate athletics across the country.
In many ways, these athletes have a valid argument. They certainly are responsible for a large chunk of revenue for their university and make sacrifices to offer their time and talents to their school’s athletics programs.
As the NCAA increasingly searches for ways to increase its profits, and college athletes are increasingly responsible for boosting the bottom line, college sports have begun to appear increasingly professional. And many of the restrictions that the NCAA imposes on college athletes, like those that got Johnny Manziel in trouble this past year, seem less and less relevant in the changing arena of big-time collegiate sports.
All obvious arguments support the Northwestern football team and others who advocate for unionization. But there is something valuable that could be lost in this process, however inevitable it might be. It seems that if the unionization does indeed happen, the idea of a student-athlete as we have known it is at risk of extinction.
The idea of the student-athlete has perhaps been on its way out of style for a long time now, but unionization might be the end of it once and for all. The concept is one that the NCAA purports, or at least in the recent past has purported, to champion. But with paychecks and unions on the horizon, it seems that the student and the athlete will be divorced for good.
This will be most true for those big-time conferences where football and basketball not only dominate campus life, but are also consequently responsible for a large amount of cash flow for the university. These are places where many athletes are already paid in the form of full or partial athletic scholarships, totaling hundreds of thousands of dollars in some cases, but unionization could up the ante even more.
While this move to unionize might be inevitable, and the arguments in its favor abound, there is something sad about the direction in which college sports is moving. But hope can be found, perhaps, in the Ivy League.
Teams in the Ivy League compete in the NCAA’s Division I, although each university is limited in what they can offer to recruited athletes. Since early in its conception, the Ivy League has prohibited athletics-based merit scholarships and also requires its student-athletes to meet the academic requirements of the university.
The consequences of these policies are twofold. On the one hand, there has been a well-documented phenomenon of high attrition among Ivy League athletes. Without scholarship promises or similar commitments tying them to their sport, athletes are free to walk away at any time to pursue the other opportunities their university has to offer.
The second consequence of the Ivy League’s policy is that each athlete who does play in the Ivy League does so by free choice in the purest sense. The motivation might be different, but whether it’s for the love of the sport, the experience of competing in Division I athletics or the friendships formed, most Ivy League athletes are tied to their sport by something other than the promise of tuition money or a professional career down the line.
As a result of many of the Ivy League’s restrictions, Yale football will likely never compete with the likes of Alabama, and Ancient Eight basketball programs are hard pressed to earn at-large bids in the NCAA tournament. Professional athletes from Ivy League universities exist, but they are few and far between.
Despite being underdogs in the Division I world, Ivy League teams lately and historically have proven that they can compete on the national stage. There has been the Harvard basketball team, which has pulled off major upsets in the second round of the last two NCAA tournaments, and of course the Yale men’s hockey team won last year’s national championship. Despite being allocated less money, less practice time and zero ability to offer scholarships to its players and recruits, these teams and others like them have proven that the Ivy League can still make waves in Division I.
Most importantly, the Ivy League has made these advances while preserving the idea of a true student-athlete. Academic restrictions on admission, as well as reduced allotted practice times, allow Ivy League athletes the opportunity to truly be both students and athletes. While this is certainly a function of the types of institutions and their academic traditions that reside within the Ivy League, it is nonetheless a standard that can and should be followed, at least to some degree, by other universities.
This is by no means an argument to change the way that NCAA sports function, because that is simply unrealistic. Rather, this is an idealist view of the way college sports should be. The Ivy League perhaps doesn’t get the credit it deserves for trying to preserve this notion, and perhaps the notion of a student-athlete itself has been lost in the thrill of big games, championships and the spectacle of college athletics. Regardless, it’s an idea worth considering before what it means to be a student-athlete changes in an unprecedented way.