Unionized College Athletes? Really?
Have we lost our way when academics takes a back seat to sports?Last year, the National Labor Relations Board held that Northwestern University athletes on sports scholarships were the University’s employees rather than students, and hence, would be permitted to unionize. See full article in the July 31, 2015 Wall Street Journal http://www.wsj.com/articles/nlrb-to-rule-on-northwestern-football-players-bid-to-unionize-1438283370
The Northwestern University’s appeal argues that these athletes are primarily students and that precedent holding that graduate students were students rather than employees was controlling. The athletes and the regional NLRB Board found that the amount of time the students spent training, sometimes more than 50 hours a week, far exceeded the amount of time spent on academics and could be considered University employees. One can imagine that Big 10 Schools are terrified of the increased cost that unionized athletes will impose upon them. On the other hand, the athletes are pushing to unionize to get better medical benefits and scholarship protection.The arguments are strong on both sides, but here is one concerning issue about the NLRB ruling: as a pre-requisite to classifying the football players are employees, the university should be paying them (i.e. by way of scholarships and grants etc.). So, what happens to the students who are considered “walk-ons” to these teams, namely those who try out and make the team after having come to the university on their own academic merits? Will they be eligible to join the Union? Will they not receive the same healthcare benefits and medical treatment that the unionized players will get? While this is a small group of players, how would you feel about it if this was your son or daughter?Also, weigh what will happen to already high tuition costs if the university is required to also provide top of the line health plans for these student athletes? Will these costs be limited to being drawn from the profits that a very small percentage of these schools make from the sporting activities or will they be spread out over the university budget in total? Will the cost of covering these expenses be at the cost of higher tuition, lower salaries for professors and staff?We have to ask these questions as we watch this saga unfolds. And ultimately, we have to ask whether we have lost sight of the basic function of the university model, i.e. to provide the next generation with a solid education so that they may be graduated to become productive citizens. Have college athletics gotten a disproportionately high level of importance with this ruling? (Says the mom of kids who don’t play football or basketball…)(Apologies to all you Rutgers, Penn State and Michigan fans out there!)