Debate to pay college athletes intensifies with ruling
Posted March 27
Updated March 28
Raleigh, N.C. — The debate whether to pay college athletes intensified Wednesday after a National Labor Relations Board regional director ruled that Northwestern football players qualify as university employees, and thus, can unionize.
While a college athlete union isn’t expected to happen anytime soon, such could allow student-athlete issues to be addressed much quicker.
“Imagine a Big Ten championship in football and both teams strike and there is no game,” said former N.C. State University basketball standout Julius Hodge. “That kind of display can cause change right away.”
Athletes are employees
The petition requesting Northwestern football players to unionize was filed by the College Athletes Players Association, an organization of current and former college athletes seeking protections that include:
- Guaranteed coverage for sports-related medical expenses for current and former athletes
- Minimizing the risk of sports-related traumatic brain injuries
- Improving graduation rates
- Obtaining due process rights for college athletes.
In his ruling Wednesday, NLRB Regional Director Peter Sung Ohr wrote that the football players, because they receive scholarships, fall within NLRB’s “broad definition of ‘employee’ when one considers the common law definition of ‘employee.’”
Ohr’s decision included extensive detail into the life of a Northwestern football player, from practice and conditioning time commitments to restrictions on outside activities and social media. It also detailed how much the university brings in from football - $235 million between 2003 and 2012.
“Players on scholarship are initially sought out, recruited and ultimately granted scholarships because of their athletic prowess on the football field,” Ohr wrote. “Thus, it is clear that the scholarships the players receive is compensation for the athletic services they perform for the employer throughout the calendar year, but especially during the regular season and postseason. That the scholarships are a transfer of economic value is evident from the fact that the employer pays for the players’ tuition, fees, room, board, and books for up to five years.”
Ohr also noted that the “tender” players are required to sign – detailing the conditions of their scholarship – serves as an employment contract.
Northwestern plans to appeal Ohr’s ruling.
“While we respect the NLRB process and the regional director’s opinion, we disagree with it,” said Alan Cubbage, vice-president for university relations, in a statement. “Northwestern believes strongly that our student-athletes are not employees, but students. Unionization and collective bargaining are not the appropriate methods to address the concerns raised by student-athletes.”
Wednesday’s decision is the latest in the nationwide discussion regarding college athlete compensation.
In California, an anti-trust lawsuit trial is scheduled for June over the use of college athletes’ names and likenesses on products, such as video games, without compensation.
Opponents argue college athletes should not be paid because they receive:
- Access to training and facilities that pro and amateur athletes pay thousands for
- Publicity that can enhance their draft status
- A free (or mostly paid for) education that they may otherwise be unable to afford
“While improvements need to be made, we do not need to completely throw away a system that has helped literally millions of students over the past decade alone attend college,” wrote Donald Remy, NCAA chief legal officer, in a statement. “We want student-athletes – 99 percent of whom will never make it to the professional leagues – focused on what matters most – finding success in the classroom, on the field and in life.”
Proponents, on the other hand, say college athletes:
- Should prosper off the billions made through merchandising and television network deals
- Spend so much time practicing and playing that they have little time for a job
- Are limited by NCAA rules regarding employment
“[The NCAA] has ignored players’ plea for concussion reform, measures to increase graduation rates, and sports-related health coverage,” said a statement on the College Athletes Players Association’s website. “College athletes need a players association because NCAA sports has clearly demonstrated that it will never voluntarily provide players with basic protections regardless of how many billions of dollars the players generate.”
A full time job
Hodge, the former N.C. State player, believes a union could help student athletes after their college playing days are over.
“It is not even a part time job, it is a full time job being a student-athlete,” he said. “A lot of basketball and football players suffer injuries, and after their playing days, insurance is up and they’re on their own.”
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Chancellor Carol Folt believes the overall college experience is more important for a student-athlete than receiving a paycheck.
"Most universities feel that what they are offering is a very deep and rich experience and is not the same as a work experience that would be a part of that union discussion,” she said. “I think there's a lot of thinking that needs to go for that."
For any college athlete union to work, it would require participation from big name players, who often do not stay in college for long, said Caulton Tudor, WRAL sports contributor.
"Those guys have got to really buy into the union concept, and really the star basketball players are not so concerned about the union concept,” he said.