Are You Ready for Some (Unionized College) Football?

by Christa Pitts

As a recent college graduate from an Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) school, I completely identify with the feeling of admiration that college students have for their schools’ athletes.  In many instances, these athletes are campus celebrities–students beg for their autographs and their pictures are plastered everywhere.  But as much as I reveled in this athletic pride, I never once thought, “These guys work so hard.  They should be getting paid.”  Peter Sungh Orh, the Chicago regional director of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), disagrees.

On March 26, 2014, the NLRB ruled that Northwestern University’s scholarship football players are allowed to unionize because they meet the definition of university employees under federal law.  Therefore, these players can vote to have a union represent them and collectively bargain on their behalf.  Northwestern’s senior starting quarterback, Kain Colter, has been the voice of the players’ contention.  Colter testified before the NLRB that he and his teammates work long, hard hours only to receive scholarship compensation that pales in comparison to the coaches’ salaries, and while players receive healthcare for injuries suffered throughout their college football careers, they are denied compensation for later-in-life health problems caused by those injuries.  Furthermore, Colter testified that scholarship players are not permitted to miss regular-season practices that conflict with classes.

College athletic programs are often criticized for simply being “big businesses,” only concerned with turning a profit at the expense of their student athletes.  Others contend that college football players understand what they are committing to when they are recruited out of high school.  Additionally, it is argued that a full ride through college (which totals about $252,000 at Northwestern) is compensation enough for the players’ time and commitment to the university.  All that aside, the bigger picture looming in the background is the fact that so much emphasis has been placed on these athletic programs that it is too quickly forgotten why these players are at these universities in the first place–to receive a college education.  While it is understood that these players are recruited based on athletic, not academic, performance, shouldn’t the overall goal be to provide them the opportunity to receive the college education they want, for free, by utilizing their athletic talents for the benefit of the university?

Understanding that the likelihood of a professional athletic career is slim for the majority of college athletes, shouldn’t universities as a whole be more concerned with ensuring that these athletes receive adequate education in return for their services to the university–i.e. not requiring them to skip classes which interfere with practices?  Maybe college athletic programs have become too much like “big businesses,” ultimately to the detriment of their own players.

Naturally, neither Northwestern University nor the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) was satisfied with the NLRB’s ruling, and will appeal to the full NLRB in Washington, D.C.  If upheld, the implications of this decision are vast and it is likely that we could see similar unionizing movements across other private college campuses nationwide.

The full NLRB decision can be found here.