Unions bad news for college sports
A ruling last week granting college athletes the tentative right to unionize was the first step in an extremely long legal battle, but it could have laid the foundation for very detrimental long-term repercussions.
A regional director from the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ruled that players on the Northwestern University football team qualified as school employees, in turn upholding their right to unionize. The decision came just a few months after a large majority of Northwestern football players expressed desire to form a union and push for increased benefits. Debate has raged for more than 10 years about whether or not colleges should pay athletes, and last week’s ruling was a significant stepping stone for players.
Certain concerns raised by athletes are warranted, but by no means do they need to venture down the path towards unionization as a solution. The largest issue raised by the Northwestern group revolved around the need to pay athletes a salary. They claim their annual scholarship ╨which covers things like room and board, tuition, book fees, and other expenses ╨just isn’t enough. They pointed to the huge pile of revenue the football team generates for the university through television deals, merchandise sales, and advertising dollars. Simply put, they just want their piece of the multi-million dollar pie.
Despite seemingly logical intentions, the players’ decision to unionize sets up potentially debilitating circumstances. If various appeals are upheld and the courts do in fact allow long-term unionization, will sports seasons see delays when athletes and university administration clash during contract negotiations? Would players in high revenue sports like football and mens’ basketball receive larger wages than an athlete on the rowing team? Would larger, more successful schools engage in an all-out bidding war to snag the nation’s best recruits? These scenarios and their outcomes are obviously undetermined right now, but various alternatives exist that could avert a damaging blow to college athletics as we know them today.
In 2011, the NCAA’s board of directors implemented a new rule that made it permissible for Division I schools to pay their players a $2,000 stipend. However, many universities argued they couldn’t afford to pay each athlete and the plan was scrapped. One could easily argue those claims from “cash-strapped” schools were nonsense, but the stipend presents an intriguing possibility to subdue recent clamorings about unpaid student athletes. By implementing a rule mandating a handout double or even triple the orginal $2,000 amount, these athletes would receive a very honest lump sum in addition to their already significant scholarships. If an all-expense paid ticket to a world class education isn’t enough for these athletes, maybe $6,000 would be enough to make them happy. The NCAA has plenty of enforcing muscle to make this happen - just look at their already overbearing regulation of member schools. By implementing a stiff cap on the stipend, the NCAA could avoid the slippery slope of escalating payments by schools willing to place the highest bid on the hottest player.
It’s nearly impossible to argue that the NCAA and its member schools don’t profit from the hard work each scholarship athlete puts into their sport. However, players are compensated by their tuition grant ╨significantly so. They aren’t playing for free, they never have played for free, and never will play for free. Every debt-ridden student that graduates college inundated by load debt would have loved the opportunity to do it all cost-free, and these athletes should realize that.
Unionizing for more privileged benefits seems like an unnecessary move for student athletes, but it presents the opportunity for certain reforms. A fattened stipend that acknowledges their hard work could be the solution to an issue with far-reaching implications. If the NCAA fails to evolve to make at least some changes, they could get sent reeling from an issue that’s sure to persist well into the future.