Should student athletes be allowed to unionize? That’s a complicated question that has yet to be definitively answered. This is a battle that is far from over. So I’m here to give you my thoughts on the issue.
I’ve alway had a firm belief that if there is a group of people profiting off of the labor and dedication of others, then the people doing the work have a right to band together in order to present a united front to management. For the workers, it’s really the only chance they have to be on a level playing field with the people profiting off of their endeavors. The owners of capital hold all of the cards in this game and as an individual, the laborer, has little chance of being able to stand up to the bosses.
So the real question regarding this whole situation is: are student athletes in fact employees? When the football players at Northwestern University attempted to unionize last year, the National Labor Relations Board declined to rule on the question of employment. Instead, they refused to extend their jurisdiction to college athletics altogether, stating “potential negative consequences” that could be associated with such a move. They didn’t necessarily overturn the lower regional ruling that the revenue-generating student athletes at Northwestern were, in fact, employees of the university, but they refused to even hear the question.
That just doesn’t make sense. The college sports industry is valued at something like $11 billion, yet the student athletes that help make all of that possible get none of the profits, have little recourse for airing grievances, and are denied certain rights that are available to other students. That’s a travesty, especially when you consider that the lack of profit sharing leaves an estimated 85% of student athletes below the poverty line. Sure, they receive room and board, in addition to tuition, but almost all agree that it isn’t enough to live on. They sacrifice their education in the name of sports. Athletes routinely miss classes in order to fulfill their commitments to the team.
All of that is secondary to what I consider the most important reason that student athletes should be able to unionize, and that’s long term health benefits. This probably applies more to football than to basketball. I don’t want to trivialize the physical sacrifices that college basketball players make, but the high impact nature of college football means that there are long-term, internal effects of that game that aren’t as obvious as the joint and bone injuries common in hoops. With everything that we now know about repeated concussions sustained in football, I believe that there should be some responsibility by the universities that are making millions off of these kids. There could be mental effects that these athletes won’t feel for years to come, and if they aren’t lucky enough to make it to the NFL, then they may be left to deal with them on their own. That’s just not fair.
In the interest of full disclosure, I was raised in a UAW family and have always been a strong believer in the benefits of unions in general. I recognize that the power they hold has been abused at times, but you can certainly say the same thing for management in almost every industry. These kids are making huge sacrifices in the name of their schools. I understand that making unionization possible for big money sports like football and basketball could put smaller, less profitable college sports in jeopardy, but I also think there is a way to work around that. There is no shortage of money in college athletics. Now the only problem is getting those that hold that money to share a little bit of it with the people who generate it. That’s not an easy thing to do, but it’s not impossible either. First, we need the student athletes of the world to unite and demand their rights as employees of their respective universities.