Guest columnist responds to President Harker's letter to The New York Times
University President Patrick Harker wrote an op-ed in The New York Times last Tuesday urging college athletes not to unionize. The opinion follows a ruling by a regional director of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) in March declaring Northwestern football players are school employees and are thereby eligible to unionize.
“You’ll shoot your eye out, kid.” Anyone who has seen “A Christmas Story” knows why the adults say Ralphie shouldn’t get a BB gun. University President Patrick Harker wrote an op-ed in the New York Times Tuesday warning student-athletes from Northwestern University and elsewhere that if they unionize, they will shoot their eyes out.
First, Harker gives a grave assessment that “[t]urning student athletes into salaried employees would endanger the existence of varsity sports on many college campuses.” He argues that converting scholarships into salaries would cost universities more money to pay the taxes on the salaries. Others are arguing that taxing the value of the scholarship would harm the athlete because the students would then be taxed on the value of the scholarship.
IRS Regulations make clear that “those portions of a scholarship, fellowship, or grant used to pay tuition, fees, books, supplies, or equipment are classified as a ‘Qualifying Scholarship’ and are not includible in gross income.” Internal Revenue Code §117. The regulations do not distinguish between students and employees or otherwise indicate that unionizing moves a scholarship from a grant to a salary. The only way for this to happen would be for the IRS to change the regulations or for Congress to act (unlikely). Unless Harker and other powerful university presidents lobby Congress to change the laws, they can sleep easy tonight knowing that scholarships and salaries will remain separate.
Opponents of student-athlete unionization always point to the evils of paying athletes as reason No. 1 why they should not unionize. Harker must have failed to read the College Athletes Players Association (“CAPA”) filings with the NLRB: not once is salary, monetary compensation from the university or any other request for payment from the universities demanded or requested. Simply put, the Northwestern athletes are not seeking financial compensation from their university, though I could not blame them if they were.
The NCAA (college athletics’ governing body) grossed $814 million in 2013 and net profits were $71 million on the backs of uncompensated student athletes. Here at the university, former head football coach K.C. Keeler “earned” more than $314,000 in 2009. To put that into perspective, the U.S. senators from Delaware make $174,000. In Harker’s defense, Delaware is one of only 11 states where the highest-paid public employee is not the head football or basketball coach of a major university. Who is the highest-paid public employee in the great state of Delaware? President Patrick Harker. Are you sure you want to have a salary debate, Mr. President?
Next, Harker points to Elena Delle Donne, former star athlete on the Delaware women’s basketball team who now plays in the WNBA, in order to show that education and athletics can co-exist. In addition to her athletic prowess, Delle Donne also managed to earn a 3.6 GPA and graduate with a degree in human services. I applaud her and remember rooting for her in the NCAA tournament (did I mention I’m a proud UD alumnus?).
I challenge Harker to take a long look at the other athletes on that team and others who are not professional athletes and who may have earned degrees in human services or other non-science majors. Are they gainfully employed? Are they employed to their full potential? It seems that university administrators have ignored the real-world situation facing college graduates in 2014. Before they argue athletes shouldn’t unionize or shouldn’t receive a salary because they are receiving a free education, they should take a long look to see what that education is actually worth to those athletes today.
Finally, in Harker’s passionate plea for purity in college athletics, he ignores the fact that scholarships are not four-year commitments. Each scholarship is for a one-year term that is renewable at the coach’s discretion. Medical coverage for athletic-related injuries is tied directly to one’s scholarship. This means that an athlete who suffers a career-ending injury that may require multiple surgeries and years of rehabilitation is at the whim of the coach and the university to determine whether the student will lose the scholarship and, as a result, lose the needed medical coverage. Because Harker failed to read CAPA’s filings to the NLRB, he is unaware that the most important requests of the Northwestern student-athletes were for guaranteed medical coverage for sports-related injuries, reduced impact practices to limit concussions, improving graduation rates, due process rights when adjudicating the litany of NCAA violations and other non-salary related concerns.
As a UD alumnus, I was very troubled to read Harker’s column. Though I support him and am happy with his job performance, it is clear that the highest-paid public employee in Delaware is more interested in maintaining that status than in the safety of his student athletes. Years from now, we will look back at university presidents, athletic directors and NCAA officials and wonder why we were complicit while they maintained their powerful statuses and trampled on the rights of student athletes. I guess we are all shooting our eyes out.
John Visconi is a 2007 graduate of the University of Delaware and a practicing attorney in New Jersey. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Visconi is a guest columnist and his opinions do not necessarily reflect those of The Review’s.