NCAA resists student-athletes' court-ruled right to unionize, university officials join conversation

Northwestern union
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Change may be coming to the NCAA as increased scrutiny of the structure may result in unionization of Northwestern University football players.


University President Patrick Harker appeared on PBS NewsHour Tuesday to debate the core definition of the phrase student-athlete—a subject that has recently been garnering vast media attention.

The increasingly scrutinized National Collegiate Athletic Association could be taking a turn toward professional sports as players and critics are campaigning for better insurance and fiscal benefits, aside from scholarships. Many, like Harker, stand by the NCAA’s foundation as an amateur league arguing the primary component of the student-athlete is student.

The National Labor Relations Board in Chicago ruled on March 26 football players on athletic scholarship at Northwestern University are employees of the school and thus have the right to unionize for benefits.

“I think the biggest problem in all of this umbrella of amateurism is just this gross misconception of people in the general public including sports fans of what is really truly reality,” University athletic director Eric Ziady said.

Paying student-athletes for their time and effort outside their scholarships, Ziady said, is exactly the opposite of what amateur athletics is to its very core. The common misperception is that universities profit grossly from their athletic department, he said, when in reality very few do.

The few schools that generate money from their athletic departments tend to be the ones with top-tier athletic programs. These schools are given more exposure via television and the media, and so the general public thinks this situation is true everywhere else, Ziady said. Less than 10 percent of colleges profit in athletics—the majority lose or invest money as they do in other extracurricular activities, he said.

Harker, a member of the NCAA’s board of directors, said on PBS NewsHour the loss schools incur should be thought of as a “subsidy” to give students opportunity, like a scholarship or money funneled into another department like theater or music.

Sports management professor Edgar Johnson said of the 125 schools in the Football Bowl Subdivision—which comprises the top universities in college football—only 69 made money. None of the Football Championship Subdivision programs, which includes the university, made a profit.

Harker said on the program if universities have to focus on paying athletes while incurring losses, rather than on improving the educational experience, “everybody loses.”

With this increase in expenses, things like non-revenue generating sports would be cut, Ziady said. Because so few schools turn a profit from athletics, money to pay student-athletes’ salaries would have to come from somewhere and would most likely come at the expense of the existence of other sports.

He said he thinks players are unaware that if they are compensated, outside of scholarships, they will be subject to income tax whereas scholarships are tax-exempt.

ESPN panelist and University of Maryland sports journalism professor Kevin Blackistone said on the program the unionization of Northwestern football is not about compensation but about resources—things like healthcare, workers compensation, and protection of scholarships in the case of injury.

He said people do not realize scholarships are renewed on a yearly basis via approval of the athletic department. If a student is injured, his or her scholarship could be lost.

However, Johnson said he thinks the Northwestern players want additional pay beyond their scholarships as well as better protection, such as insurance for catastrophic injuries which already exists.

The NCAA Catastrophic Injury Insurance Program grants money from an insurance company based on the severity of their injury, Johnson said. In the case of paralysis, for example, this policy can be used to help a player get wheelchairs, vans and ramps for their homes.

Northwestern players claimed to have been giving 40 to 50 hours a week to the sport, Johnson said, and that must have been including voluntary hours, not just the required practice. The NCAA puts a maximum cap of 20 hours coaches can mandate on a weekly basis, so the players must have been calculating the extra time they give, he said.

The ruling at Northwestern that student-athletes are employees also sparked national debate and extensive media coverage of what it means to be an NCAA student athlete

The phrase student-athlete, which Blackistone called a misnomer, was coined in the 1960s by past NCAA executive director Walter Byers, Blackistone said, to prevent players from being viewed as employees. NCAA players who had been critically injured filed lawsuits against the NCAA at the time, he said.

“They wanted their member institutions to take care of them as if they were, what they are, and that is employees of the university,” Blackistone said.

Student-athletes here on scholarship are obligated to meet minimum academic requirements, Johnson said, and therefore he does not see how they could be considered employees or anything but students. A university is a place meant to prepare people for the next 40 years of their lives, he said, not solely the next four years.

“In intercollegiate athletics, in my mind, I don’t think you can divorce the educational component from the athletic component,” Johnson said. “I think they go together.”

Johnson mentioned two cases—one at Brown University and the other at Indiana State University—where the courts ruled students were not employees. There is precedent, he said, which declares student-athletes are nothing more than student-athletes.

However, there is a forum where athletes go to be paid, where they are actually employees of a sports team, and it is called professional sports, Ziady said. Certain professional leagues though bar students from entering without attending a minimum requirement of college years first.

“If the NBA or NFL prohibits a high school senior from going straight from high school to the professionals, well, then that kid’s argument and legal case is with the league,” Ziady said. “It’s not with the colleges.”

Because student-athletes are unable to go out for professional sports right after high school, and their time commitment is so large, some feel they should be compensated in addition to scholarships for this reason alone.

Ziady said either position can be argued—many other extracurricular activities, like being in a school play, require a large time commitment but participants in these clubs and organizations don’t receive compensation. Because college athletics is televised unlike most other college activities, it is under much more scrutiny.

Sophomore Joe Johnson said with the growth of the fan-base for college sports, he looks at student-athletes as professionals. College basketball and college football garner more attention than the NBA or NFL, he said, so he doesn’t view players as amateur athletes although he is on the fence on whether they should be paid in addition to scholarships for their contribution.

“If it happens, I’ll be shocked if it ever does, but… I’ve heard a lot of stories of players talking about it,” Johnson said.

Sophomore Reese Earley said he definitely thinks student-athletes deserve to be paid. The amount of time they dedicate to their sport, outside of classes, is like having a full-time job, he said.

“I feel like it might be a bonus because it might convince kids to stay in school for four years and actually graduate with a degree instead of playing a year and then going into pro football for example, so then if they do get hurt or they do end up not playing they have something to fall back on,” Earley said.

Which is exactly what Harker campaigns for.

“Students need an education to be successful,” Harker said. “Even if they have a pro-career. They’re not going to do that forever and after their career is over… they need to be successful in something else and they need an education.”

The university has sent students-athletes into professional sports, but Ziady said the academic aspect of the student-athlete is still top-priority. The main concern is giving players the ability to grow as leaders, graduate with a degree, and become contributing members of society.

Ziady said he foresees change coming to the NCAA—specifically in the system’s governance—but he does not think anyone can predict at this point how it will all play out.

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