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The Unionization of College Sports?

By Michael DeBenedetto

In recent years, the debate surrounding student-athlete compensation has become a fixture in college sports. The most recent development in this discussion has been the attempted unionization of the Northwestern University football team. In August, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) refused to recognize the proposed unionization by choosing not to exercise its jurisdiction there. (http://espn.go.com/college-football/story/_/id/13455477/nlrb-says-northwestern-players-cannot-unionize). In reaching its decision, the NLRB noted that much of the nation's schools, especially in the Big 10, are state operated. For this reason, exercising its jurisdiction over a private institution, to decide its labor status, would be unfair to the rest of the conference. (http://www.si.com/college-football/2015/08/17/northwestern-football-players-union-nlrb-ruling-analysis). This ruling overturned the NLRB Regional Director's decision finding that Northwestern University players met the criteria of a union and could be considered employees based on (1) the expanded development of television contracts and (2) the day-to-day influence of coaches over each player's activities. (http://espn.go.com/college-football/story/_/id/13455477/nlrb-says-northwestern-players-cannot-unionize).

This ruling shed light on the labels of "student" and "employee." There is a strong argument that the athletes are students before anything else. They are not working for a business like a professional athlete, but rather studying at an institution of higher learning. To quote Clemson's head football coach Dabo Swinney: "To say these guys get nothing totally devalues an education. It just blows my mind people don't even want to quantify an education." (http://bleacherreport.com/articles/2020286-making-the-case-against-a-college-football-players-union). The compensation they receive for participation in an athletic program offered by the school is a free education; this includes tuition, books, and meals. (http://espn.go.com/college-football/story/_/id/13455477/nlrb-says-northwestern-players-cannot-unionize). The school, on its own merits and principles, along with its respective conference, negotiates with various outlets to gain its students and school exposure on the national stage. Compensation is then awarded to the school, which, in turn, uses it to fund its institution and the various programs it sponsors, including football scholarships.

If a student-athlete is found to be an "employee," the school, through collective bargaining, would have to obey minimum wage laws and deal with larger issues such as work week hours, overtime, and worker's compensation should injuries occur. These facets, among others, would likely undermine the players' role as student-athletes and challenge the amateur label under which they function.
(http://www.si.com/college-football/2015/08/17/northwestern-football-players-union-nlrb-ruling-analysis). Furthermore, other sports may be impacted and programs that do not generate the same level of profit may be forced to be cut because of the larger allocation provided to the more popular programs. (http://www.chicagotribune.com/sports/college/ct-paying-college-athletes-20150822-story.html).

With this ruling regarding Northwestern University, a private institution, the focus now shifts to public universities and their programs. As recognized in the decision, public universities answer to their states' rules on unionization rather than to the NLRB, which concerns itself with private employers. Thus, there is potential for further litigation concerning the state arena. However such litigation would create unrest. This is because some states bar unionization of college athletes through their "right to work standards" and will not recognize college-athletes as employees, while other states may be more friendly to unionizing. This could create problems within a conference should some schools prohibit unionization, while others do not. (http://www.si.com/college-football/2015/08/17/northwestern-football-players-union-nlrb-ruling-analysis).

Overall, the most recent major battle in the college-athlete struggle to unionize has gone in favor of the universities. The NLRB's refusal to grant jurisdiction over Northwestern University's claim will have repercussions in the struggle to define the status of college-athletes. While the issue is far from resolved, the current climate seemingly favors the universities. This, arguably, could be for the betterment of college sports.

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This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on October 29, 2015 9:20 PM.

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